Photo by Chaz McGregor
Dear 11-year-old self:
For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered an emotional weakness: I’ve always had an overwhelming sense of guilt at my inability to remove pain and suffering from the world around me.
I feel bad for animals…
I can’t stand being in the meat section of the grocery store knowing lobsters are alive, bound, and suffering in a cramped tank; I find myself maintaining a significant distance from the torturous tanks.
I can’t visit a zoo without appreciating the excruciatingly sad faces on most of the animals whose mobility, diets, relationships, and every aspect of their lives are confined, constrained, or controlled in every way. I find myself unable to enjoy their elegance as my mind wanders to how I’d feel if I were in their place and, more importantly, how I’d want someone…anyone to stand up for me and help me.
I feel bad for people…
I can’t visit a developing country without empathizing with its people, most of whom struggle to survive on a daily basis not to get ahead but to just avoid regression. I find myself realizing I was born in such a country and I could’ve easily found myself in a constant struggle to give my family a better chance than I had.
I can’t watch the news, biased as their presentation may be, without feeling the sense of horror that people who live in war zones must be experiencing. I find myself wondering how I could help them because I’m certain they’re not that different than me. The majority of them have little to gain or lose from the geopolitical battles between powerful nations who use their country as a theater of war, likely for control of a strategic resource.
History is what reinforces my concern…
As I’ve said many times, society has a long and verifiable tradition of being on the wrong side of history.
There was a time when slavery was accepted as norm. There was a time when communities found it reasonable to burn women alive accusing them of being witches. There was a time, not that long ago, when Blacks couldn’t drink from the same drinking fountain as Whites. This shameful list could go on for some time.
As clearly unreasonable, unethical, and perhaps even crazy as the aforementioned behaviors sound today, during those times, they were seen as normal and acceptable by wide swathes of society. A reasonable conclusion is that there are many things we take as normal today that will be seen as shameful in the future.
The question is: what can you do about it?
It’s not until later in life, thanks to your parents’ guidance, that you’ll figure out how to answer that question because, ultimately, you cannot and will not be able to solve most of the problems around you nor will you be able to remove the suffering of living things around you. All you can hope for is to make a difference at every opportunity you can; it’s the amalgam of a lot of small acts by a growing number of people over time that changes the world — and you want to be one of the first to recognize the need to act and not one of the last, because there was a person who was last to reject slavery.
Your parents capture the guidance succinctly in a three-step consideration:
1. If you see misfortune or pain, do something about it. It’s your obligation to society to always do what’s in your power to help even if it in no way benefits you.
2. If you can’t do something, say something about it. In many cases, unfortunately, you can’t do much about it: even though you want to smash the glass and release the lobsters from the grocery store tank, doing so would be illegal; so, when you can’t do something about it, say (or write) something about it.
3. If you can’t say something, feel something about it. Unfortunately, in many cases, society will not be ready for your opinion. Historically, society has shown itself willing to imprison, torture, or even kill thinkers, scientists, and progressively-minded people who put forth ideas that destabilize the financial and power structures within it. In those cases, as painful as it will be for you, you must simply feel empathy and compassion knowing you’re at the extent of your power at this time.
Your 44-year-old self.