In high school, I considered being an existentialist. I devoured my summer reading list of Beckett, Dostoyovsky, and Kafka during breakfast, and I liberally sprinkled in Kierkegaard:
"What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die."
I could get behind the way Kierkegaard earnestly and fervently sought his truth, and the existentialist philosophies that the value of our life was created by us, by living our value, by doing, and not by talking about it or philosophizing it. I needed an idea “for which I am willing to live and die.” And I found that idea early on, in nonprofit work. The idea was simple: I can make a difference in the world. And I passionately and whole-heartedly set out make that difference – I acted and I pushed forward and I built fancy towers out of my truth and sold my truth to my peers and my colleagues and my acquaintances. You can make a difference, and here’s how! I said.
In college, I was introduced to Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher who wrote a book called The Life You Can Save. In his book, Singer has 4 basic premises, which Wikipedia was kind enough to boil down for me:
- First Premise: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.
- Second Premise: If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.
- Third premise: By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
- Conclusion: Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.
Aha. I had stumbled upon the black and white answer, and I agreed with him. But, in typical Joni-style, I focused in on the 2nd premise: “If it is in [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][my] power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.” Except I read this mandate as “If it IS in my power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to [so I must] do so.” And I set about with renewed vigor to save the world, but there was so much to do!
I could see bad happening all around me. While it might be in my power to prevent this one bad thing from happening down my street, or this other bad thing from happening in India, I couldn't, in actuality, prevent both bad things from happening simultaneously, even if I know about them both… and we’re back to Kierkegaard – “What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act."
I thought I could save the world, and I was wrong.
I thought I could save the world, and I was right.
Because I've come to realize that saving the world looks like saving one life at a time. And sometimes, that one life is my own.
Somewhere in my lofty idealism, I believe in my own life I should have it all together. In my own life, I should not (still) struggle with feelings of unworthiness and insecurity, or feelings that my efforts are futile. My life should never be the life I can save: by all accounts, I look like a success. Unless you look too closely and see – gasp! – that I’m not perfect. And this is where my fancy towers crumble just a little more: I allow myself some feelings of victory when I succeed. But I define myself by my failures: Couldn’t make a kid’s school event because of a work meeting? Fail. Didn’t close that sale? Fail. Didn’t meet my fundraising goal for my nonprofit? Fail. Haven’t posted on my blog in months? Fail. Snapped at my partner when she was just trying to help? Fail. Didn’t say quite what I meant on that meeting with clients? Fail. Get nervous when I speak publicly? Fail. Couldn't figure out the idea that would solve a problem at work? Fail. Didn't meet my goals at work? Fail. Lost 7 twitter followers? Fail. Kids fight with each other and the youngest has a serious temper? Fail. Didn't phrase my argument quite as well as I would have liked? Fail.
On most days, I can keep my perspective and remember my purpose. But on some days, the work of nonprofits seems so daunting I am tempted to just hide my head in the sand, forget the rest of the world, define my purpose in some other way. And yet I keep coming back to my truth: I can make a difference. Even when I feel like I am falling short of changing the world. Even when I don’t have my shit together and I need to work harder to get there. Even when the problems around me seem to be more than I can make a dent in. Even when I hit the wall, and despair at yet another huge obstacle in my path. That’s ok. Because I’m human.
My truth is, I can make a difference. I can save a life. But I can’t save every life. Nonetheless, I must save the life I can save. I must SEE the life I can save. I must know what steps can be taken to save that life. For me, that means living my life authentically, recognizing that sometimes I can’t get clarity about what I must do without learning what the problem is: It means that I must admit I don’t know, I must ask questions, I must look at the things that frighten me, I must push myself beyond my comfort zone. It means I must own that I’m not perfect, and sometimes I’m going to fail, and my best efforts won’t be enough to save a life. And I must admit that sometimes the only life I can save is my own, and that’s ok.
But it also means despite (or perhaps because of) my humanity and my imperfection, I am making a difference in my world. I am helping to change it for the better. Can I do it perfectly? No. But perfection is just not all it's cracked up to be.