The past few weeks have been some of the worst for the country, and some of the best in my life. These things are (obviously) not correlated, and I would be lying if I said that the overall malaise that has stricken the country, and the world, in the wake of such a damning and terrifying election hasn’t deeply undercut the joy I’ve been able to feel for these (objectively) great things. And that feels right, because of course no one should be floating along on a cloud of personal satisfaction when so much is so very, very wrong.
But it’s also important to remind myself that the things that have been happening over the past few weeks — some mostly-personal developments that I haven’t told many people about yet, but which are nonetheless extremely great — are once-in-a-lifetime sorts of things. To not enjoy them, to not allow myself to feel the full weight of the happiness, to cry and smile as much as I otherwise would, feels like something of a waste. If the world manages to pick its way out of the undeniably-ugly situation in which it currently finds itself, and I believe that it will, I will hate myself if I refused to enjoy my personal happiness in the moment. There are undoubtedly much more happy things that have happened in much more compromised contexts (the first baby was born at Standing Rock just over a month ago, lest we forget).
Even if there weren’t many things for me to be celebrating, though, it would still be a mistake to do what I’ve been doing many sleepless nights. Like many of us, I imagine, I spend the hours between approximately 10 PM and 2 AM scrolling through Twitter, feeling my anxiety rise to a sustained, quietly-panicked hum, and finally fall asleep feeling more impotent and cynical than just a few hours before. I know, rationally, that the days on which I’ve taken a few productive actions, read one or two focused articles, and generally eschewed social media, I’ve felt better, more hopeful, and more motivated to do whatever is within my capacity to help my country. But it’s hard not to give into this nagging voice at the back of your head that confuses constant, directionless vigilance and consumption with action, being hyper-aware with being productive.
And when I combine the two — my ceaseless desire to consume almost-nihilist op-eds and news blurbs, and the reality that I have many things to personally celebrate in this time — I end up with the most pointless and gluttonous feeling of all: a profound guilt. Social guilt, I am more convinced each day, is a mostly-selfish sentiment, something born more out of self-consciousness and a desire to seem like the “good” kind of privileged than much else. The truth is that, if you have things like your health, basic financial stability, insurance, and a relatively-strong network of people you could call on if you were in a dire situation, you are fairly privileged. There are many other axes to privilege, of course, but in a time when so much is uncertain, it’s easy to get caught up in a dizzy kind of guilt about having the most basic structures around yourself. And it’s true — you’re lucky to have those things, if you do. But feeling “badly” about it does nothing for anyone.
If you want to turn that spinning top of culpability into something productive, you can give money. You can donate your time, or a useful skill. You can lend an ear to someone who needs it, or give a platform to someone whose voices are marginalized and whose stories need to be heard. You can support projects you believe in, and subscribe to publications who are doing desperately-needed investigative and adversarial journalism. You can volunteer with political organizations and candidates you believe in who are not in a presidential election. There are a thousand things you can do with your privilege, and sitting at home feeling guilty is about the least useful of them all. Using your free time to endlessly browse social media and feel more desperate is not just unproductive, it’s frankly an insult to all of the other, much more impactful things you could be doing with that same time, or internet-energy.
And beyond all this, there is the ultimate truth, which I’m reminded of every time I forget to be appreciative of the things happening in my life: we still have to live. We still have to continue each day, to work, to hug our loved ones, to eat and drink and go for walks and take care of our kids or pets or elders. We still have to find joy in things, laugh when things are funny, cry when they are sad (or overwhelmingly lovely). Life continues even in the bleakest moments, and a refusal to enjoy the best moments of it will do nothing to counteract the rest. Focusing relentlessly on things you cannot control, and bathing yourself in a soup of the worst possible outcomes, is ultimately only beneficial to your conscience, and even that is debatable. Dividing your day intelligently and productively, into moments of action and moments of simple, beautiful life — that stands a chance of doing something good, both morally and ethically.
Just after the election, I saw a woman (a creative professional, self-employed), whom I didn’t know, asking her Twitter feed how people managed to motivate themselves to get back to work, in light of everything. I didn’t respond because I’m trying to teach myself to be less pointlessly combative on social media, but I admit the question upset me more than I thought it would, and has lingered with me for weeks after the initial shock of the day has passed. When I saw it, all I could think was “How can you not think of all the people who have zero luxury to ask themselves that question, to spend hours on Twitter, to obsessively read news, to take even a day to process the shock and sadness? How can you not think of all the people — the vast majority! — who were just expected to immediately return to regular life and put their heads down? How could you not think of them, and not ask such an indecently-privileged question?” But I said nothing, and I’m glad I didn’t, because the fight undoubtedly wouldn’t have been worth it.
It’s easy to feel like everything is desperate, and nothing means anything. It’s easy to forget how many people in this country feel that little has truly changed, because they have been left behind and utterly forgotten by politics for decades — for how many this sense of desperation has been a banal and numbing constant. It’s easy to forget the privilege inherent in feeling like this moment, this election, is the time it all somehow went wrong, and that it hadn’t been very wrong to this point. It’s easy to forget how much of a slap in the face “America is great already” might have felt to so many as a campaign response. It’s easy to forget where we stand in the scheme of things, and to retreat into aimless guilt when we do.
But if I have learned one thing in the past two years as a business owner, particularly as the team and TFD itself have grown substantially, it’s this: when everything potentially falls under your umbrella of responsibility, it’s easy to either allow work to cannibalize your life, or to become paralyzed in inaction. There is always something you could be doing more or better, always a personal moment you could be eschewing for a more noble work obligation. There is always a reason to be typing frantically by the light of a blue screen while your partner sleeps beside you, ignored and put second. But this will not make your work better, and it will consume your life in the process. When there is always something you could be doing, it’s more essential to carve out time and find productive, tangible things to do with it, and then close the computer, turn off the noise, forget what you are doing, and remember who and what you are doing it for. No matter how consuming things can be, you still must live. You must still enjoy the good when it comes, and remember that being in a constant state of panic doesn’t make anything better. You still have to live.
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