“These times are sent to try men’s souls” – Metallica
Yes, I know the quote is actually from Thomas Paine’s American Crisis, but that’s actually “These are the times that try men’s souls”, so nyah.
It feels like a dark time, doesn’t it? Maybe it always has and we’re just now more aware of it. Maybe it feels this way to some of us, and it felt this way to others, and it will feel this way to still others in the future. I don’t care to speculate on the swings of the sociopolitical pendulum at this time. What I want to talk about is burnout, compassion fatigue, and weight lifting.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably gotten a lot more politically active in the recent years or months. If so, you are probably already reaching a saturation point. You’re forgetting all the causes and efforts that need daily attention. When you write, call, email, text, fax, tweet, march, you could be forgiven for straining to remember what issue came first, or to organize issues in any order of importance.
In truth, many of the issues that face us are cyclical. Street crime feeds into police violence which feeds into social distrust which feeds into disestablishmentarianism which feeds into dwindling voter turnout which feeds into gerrymandering which feeds into political corruption which feeds into lower economic and educational standards which feeds into social disenfranchisement which feeds into drug use which feeds into street crime. Where does it stop?
Where you pick a spot and fix it.
The downside to this world of cyclical issues is that it can seem like fixing one problem will do nothing because it’s actually created by another problem and following that back leads to still another problem (or a fundamental flaw in human nature, but that’s a discussion for another time). The upside is that if one problem CAN be fixed, then that will have a cascading effect to solve the next problem downstream. It is plausible, possible, maybe even probable, that fixing one problem may eventually end up fixing the very problem that creates it. Kind of crazy, isn’t it?
But there are so many problems, aren’t there? There really are. The first thing to remember, however, is that there have always been problems. This isn’t to say that the world doesn’t need fixing. This isn’t to say that we (society) aren’t at some kind of a tipping point. And that isn’t to dismiss the problems as eternal and therefore unworthy of attention. That isn’t even to say ‘if we survived previous problems, we’ll survive these problems’ (that’s known as survivor’s bias, yet another discussion for another time). All that is to say is that human history is replete with struggles, so draw some strength that what you are fighting now is not unlike what has been fought in the past. Fought, and won.
So how do we change the world? How do we save it? What cause do we pick first?
This is where we can take lessons from athletics, from physical culture, from strength training. Define a specific goal and pursue it, letting other matters take care of themselves or engaging in them only when they don’t interfere with the primary pursuit.
Defining specific goals is probably the most key. It’s easy to say ‘I want to be healthy’, but what does healthy mean? How do you define it? Let’s say you want to ‘be able to keep up with my kids’. Keep up how? In a forty-yard dash or in a twenty-minute visit to the playground? The more specific you can make your goal, the more readily you can identify what needs to be done to achieve it. There can be a point of diminishing returns when it comes to specificity, yes, but that’s not a problem nearly as often as you might think. Define your goal.
Back to social matters, what cause you are pursuing is largely going to be defined by your own personal morals. You – you, reading this right now – need to pick what matters the most to you. Be honest. What truly matters? My inclination is to say if you can’t decide, what was the first thing that popped into your head? Odds are, that’s what matters. So that’s what you need to fight for.
When I say fight, I mean to focus on that one problem. Try to avoid getting distracted by other issues. Yes racism is bad but animal abuse might very well lead into racism, so if you choose fighting animal fighting and puppy mills and that stuff, don’t change it. Sign petitions against racism, share posts fighting it, speak out against it, all of that. Do the ‘easy’ stuff for any and all causes that come your way that you believe in. But when you do things that take any real effort, remember your primary goal. And trust that others are fighting racism. Help them when you can, but you’ve got another fight.
Secondly, know how to get help. If you’ve got your cause, you can look to others who share your passion. If you want to save the animals, look to other activists and groups who advocate the same thing. Look to who has been successful and see what they did. Looking to the success (and failure) of others can be very telling and help ensure that you are being as effective as possible.
Thirdly, define your objective. ‘Save all the animals’ might be noble but there are a lot of different threats. Are you going to advocate for animal crossings on highways and roads, or criminalize animal abuse? Are you going to push for fairer legislation dealing with rabies vectors or are you going to insist pounds received increased funding? Are you going to combat animal testing or inhumane treatment of farm animals? Pick one. Pick one and fight for it. You need to do this for three very important reasons.
The first reason is to keep your efforts focused. When you call senators and representatives and governors and state-level and city-level officials, know what to ask for. Saying ‘I want to see you do more to help animals’ is fine, but ‘I want animal abuse to be a more serious felony’ is an actionable item, it’s something they can then take and draft a bill around.
The second reason is to optimize your efforts. You can petition your senators all the livelong day, but if it’s a state matter, or a local matter, or an agency-specific matter, your efforts will be inefficient at best. All it takes may be going to the Department of Justice and filling out a form once a week, in which case calling elected officials may be little more than spinning one’s wheels. Being judicious and careful in your efforts can save time and, depending on your cause, saves lives.
The third reason is so you know when to celebrate.
Look at these causes written above. Look at all of them, just for animals. Then remember all the other ills that face the world. So many. So much ugliness and struggle and strife. There are so many fights to wage, efforts that must be won. It’s exhausting, terrifying, painful to even consider.
Celebration becomes all the more necessary. By having defined goals, you can recognize when you’ve gotten a win. By having defined goals, you can say ‘a-ha, I did that’. You can say ‘progress was made’. However small, however tiny, you can know that you made a real and meaningful difference in the world. You can know that you’ve done it. Celebrate. Recognize that you won a fight, a fight that needed to be won.
Once again, Then, tomorrow, wake up and do it again. Pick a new challenge. Go after another animal rights issue, or switch gears to something totally new. Whatever you want, whatever speaks to you.
You don’t have to abandon all other causes, but you have to keep your sights focused. Otherwise, you will end up flittering from cause to cause, never sticking with an issue long enough to see real, lasting change. Sign all the petitions you want for everything from corruption prosecution to internal lightbulb agreements, but remember your core issue. That way you’ll know when and how to apply the pressure necessary and you’ll be able to recognize when you’ve won.
And wins can sometime seem like a rare thing in this world. Know and celebrate one when you get it.
3 thoughts on “Social Activism and Goal-Setting”
I highly recommend the book Effective Altruism. Very thought provoking on this subject.
This truly resonated with me and has provided me with a direction on how to tackle and organize the various, rather heavy issues I expect to encounter within my intended career path. Excellent read!