things you can't fix

Finding what you can fix; living with what you can’t

Activism and advocacy are emotionally difficult on a number of levels.

One reason is that the problems that need solving are enormous.

No one has the capacity to solve all of them. Everyone has some degree of power to act; nobody has the power to fix everything or address every injustice.

Making the world better is largely a matter of seeking out opportunities to act. Caring about the problems isn’t enough. Being willing to fight for what you believe in isn’t enough either.

It’s important to look for circumstances in which you have power to make something change. If you look, you will find some — and not others.

The opportunities you have to create change are not always the opportunities you care about most. Caring deeply doesn’t always create power.

And there are always tradeoffs. There will often be situations in which there are many things you could do — and only the resources to do one of them.

There are usually compromises. Victories are usually partial. And they often involve complicity in things you’d rather not be complicit in.

And in order to find the opportunities to change things, you have to keep looking — even though this means you’ll see things you can’t fix.

This can be very hard to live with. It can be tempting to believe that if you just tried harder, you’d be able to fix everything. Or that if you cared more, you’d be able to do everything. Or that if you were a better person, you’d be able to avoid making compromises (or working with people who do bad things).

I think it helps to remember that it’s like this for everyone. No one can fix everything; everyone has to make choices and compromises.

I think it also helps to remember that the problems exist whether or not you’re looking at them. Looking at the problems hurts; it also gives you the chance to do something about some of them.

It’s also important to remember that you matter, and that there are things in the world that are good. Not everything is horrible (even though sometimes it feels that way); a lot of things are good. And people matter and are worth loving now, as things are. Activism isn’t about hating everything; it’s about making things better. And recognizing already-good things and valuing people both actually help with that.

tl;dr Activism involves caring about more things than you can fix. It involves a lot of tradeoffs and difficult choices. It’s not your fault; it’s like this for everyone. You can’t fix everything; you can do work that matters and make some things better. Remember that the world contains good things too.

Facing other people's pain

Sometimes, it’s very hard for people to acknowledge other people’s suffering.

It sometimes follows this kind of pattern (I picked arbitrary names to make it easier to read):

  • Sam is suffering in some major way
  • Otto finds this incredibly painful to witness
  • Otto can’t fix the problem that is causing Sam pain
  • Otto pressures Sam into reassuring him by pretending that he’s feeling ok and it’s not so bad
  • This allows Otto to ignore what’s going on, and to not have to be upset about Sam’s pain anymore
  • Sam’s situation gets worse, but Otto gets to feel better

It’s easy to fall into treating someone this way without realizing it, especially if you’re in a helping profession. If your identity is centered around being helpful to others, it can be very painful to acknowledge important things you can’t fix. It’s still really important to acknowledge them, because otherwise you end up hurting people. It’s really important to develop emotional coping skills to be able to acknowledge pain that you can’t fix.

If other people are doing this to you, it can sometimes be disorienting, especially when the people who do it are otherwise genuinely helpful. It’s really degrading when others pressure you to pretend to be ok so that they can feel better. Sometimes, this is hard to detect clearly. Sometimes, people are making it much better than it’s ever been — and you’re genuinely grateful for that — but at the same time, it’s still pretty awful, and they want you to convince them that everything is wonderful.

Most people experience both sides of this dynamic at some point in their life. Whichever side of it you’re on, it helps to remember that it’s a thing, and that it’s not ok. People shouldn’t pressure others to pretend they’re ok when they’re not.