I know a few people who do phenomenal things. One works in legal aid with minority groups; another spends half his time doing primary health care work in South Africa; another lived in the West Bank for nine months supporting Palestinian families who were made homeless by settlers, and organising non-violent resistance; and others work for the unions, animal rights / lib organisations, and so on. I dipped my toe into these waters in a not-very-meaningful way in Kenya, and hope to really take the leap once I’m qualified to do something useful. Making full time commitments to these things comes at a price, of course, and watching people do it, I suspect the only way it can be sustainable is through a very specific attitude. You cannot hurl yourself against the monolith.
I really think this applies to anything, any profession or lifestyle or activism that asserts an influence on your daily life. It wears you down, confronting the same issue on a huge scale every day. A friend of mine talks about this regarding climate change – it’s so huge, so overpowering, that it paralyses us. I’ve seen other people I know hit the same point in other areas, chipping away at a small section for years, then looking up at the thing for a moment and feeling totally overpowered, as though everything they’d done in the intervening years was meaningless because the monolith remained standing. You cannot, must not, look at your own work in that context.
Whatever keeps you up at night, it is crucial not to frame your own part in it as succeeding or failing based on your impact on the rest of the world. The best thing I did in Kenya had basically nothing to do with the program I was working in. I spent fifteen dollars on a year’s supply of Ventolin for the eldest son of one of the HIV+ women I was working with, which got his mother out of the position of choosing between a month’s rent and a trip to the hospital every time he had an attack. That was it. Nothing I did as a volunteer even approaches that for impact. The best thing I do now is organise with some friends to pay his high school tuition each year. I cannot “fix” Kenya or ameliorate the conditions which lead to the devastating impact of HIV in south eastern Africa, and it would be laughable, naive, and patronising of me to try. I can help put a sixteen year old through school. The education system itself and the crippling income inequality that would have denied him access to it are unchanged. It is a small thing in a country of forty million. He is one person, part of one family who may one day depend on him completely, and it really, really matters that he goes to school.
Do not hurl yourself against the monolith. The wonders of the internet mean all politically aware people are at risk of the spiritual equivalent of the death of a thousand cuts. Do not devote hours of your day to reading soul-destroying articles on things you’re already well-informed about, unless you have reason to believe that they’ll contain new information which you can use to direct your actions in some meaningful way. Seriously. Don’t do it. Make careful decisions about what you really need to know. Find something at a scale where you can have a really meaningful impact, and chip away at it. Volunteer somewhere locally. Put the effort into finding a really good, preferably less well-known charity – two I’ve been really impressed with are the Fistula foundation and Interplast, both of whom do life-changing things for individual people. Edgar’s Mission does life-changing things for individual animals.
By all means give to Amnesty and Oxfam as well, be vegan, post articles to Facebook, whatever you think is important in the grand scheme. I just think it can be really useful to balance that with something that feels like your contribution has a clear, well-defined impact on a smaller scale. Remember that all of these issues are fundamentally about hardships faced by individual people (or animals), and that you may be able to do far more for one or two of them than you will ever do for the masses. Knowing you’ve managed to help them personally may give you the energy to do more for other people. It can sustain you as well as them, and that’s important. You’ll be no use to anybody if you give up in despair because you can’t take down the monolith.