So, I'd like to share my strategy for dealing with helplessness fatigue.
Step 1. Create your Life Guidelines. Your personal mission statement. Your bottom line. Whatever you want to call it. Keep it simple. One to three short statements that sum up why you are here on this earth. Your life guidelines may change over time. You don't have to capture your purpose perfectly. Spend no more than half an hour crafting your statements. Distill all your ideas down into a simple statement, or paragraph if you must, and try it on for a while. You can always revisit it later and change it.
For a long time, my bottom line was simply the verse Micah 6:8 (my post-colonialist inclusive adaptation of NRSV) : "God has told you, O Mortal, what is good and what Love requires of you: but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." Here's my latest, created on my drive to work yesterday in a matter of five minutes.
Step 2. Decide how much time and money you have to use to make the world better. There are lots of ways you can come up with a number for these two factors (see bonus activity below). And it is okay if the time factor is two hours and the money factor is zero. Or if the time factor is zero and the money factor is $10 a month. It really depends on your circumstances. You have something to give. This is what matters. Don't let your belief that you are not enough or you don't have enough kill your intention to help. You can help. You can.
Don't allow yourself to beat you up for making the decisions that brought to this place. Don't put yourself down for not having enough to give. You have enough. You are enough. Don't worry... as you intentionally devote your time and money to helping, you empower yourself to figure out ways to give more. It's a human thing: we want to help. We are a social species; it is our destiny to give and receive, to be connected to other human beings in a meaningful way.
Step 3. Pick one cause, or one organization, or one person. Pick one way to help. Follow your heart. What makes your heart break most? What brings actual tears to your eyes?
Do some research to find one local or national or international organization that is effectively doing something to solve the one problem that breaks your heart most. Then give what you can to that cause. It's good to have a way to give of your time, not just your money, so you might want to find a local organization that works on the same issue, or that contributes to the organization you chose. If you can't find one, create one. Invite your friends over for tea once a month to work together on finding ways to help the organization. You could all collect your loose change over the month, then come together to count it and write out a check to send. You could write letters to the editor (maye not like this one) or to congress. You could make a poster. You could make a webpage.
Step 4. Remember. Remember you are one person, and your first priority is to be a healthy human being living a good life. Remember the reason your heart breaks for your one cause is because you know the people affected by that problem deserve to be healthy. They deserve to live a good life. So if you are giving up your healthy, good life, you're not really doing them any good. That doesn't mean you get to live in oppulent luxury and wastefulness. You know what you need. You know how little and simple the things are that truly make your dreams come true. So be honest. Give what you can honestly give, and let that be part of your good, healthy life.
Post a picture that represents the people or creatures you are helping on your fridge. Carry one around in your pocket. Whenever you are feeling helpless, just pull it out and look at it and remind yourself you are helping. And if you can, help a little more.
Step 5. Show and tell. This is really how you change the world. Because if every human being takes these steps, if every human being would consciously give what they can out of an honest assessment of the privilege they possess, then you would see huge changes. You would start to see real equality and real justice.
My college roommate did something I had never seen. She washed out her food storage plastic bags and resued them. At the time, I really didn't get it. I didn't think it was saving much money, and surely, those tiny things didn't add up to much in the landfill. Why bother. She never said anything to me about how I should do that, too. She just did it. Years later, when I became more aware of the problem of plastic waste, I started washing out my plastic bags and reusing them. And my daughter reuses her plastic bag. Tamara Gorden changed the world. Her small act of helping multiplied. I didn't become an Environmental Engineer like she did. I'm sure she's done even bigger things for this earth since I knew her 29 years ago. But she inspired me to do what I could, to know more, and to do more.
Don't just be the change you want to see in the world, LEAD the change. Talk to a friend about the issue and ask your friend what breaks her heart. You can help in so many ways that cost very little time and very little money. Every little thing you can do to help counts. The way you live your life counts. Saying kind words to a lonely stranger on the street might affect that person's world in a way you will never know. Carrying those plates with you to potlucks and work lunches instead of using the paper products provided is keeping one tiny drop of waste out of the waste stream. But how many people will see you do that? What if just one percent of them follow your lead? How many people will see them keeping their tiny drops out of the bucket? What if five percent of them start doing the same? And when people comment on your plates, you can have one of your handy dandy statistics ready. Or, you can just say how easy it is to carry them and wash them rather than using throwaways. Just calling paper plates throwaways will put a tiny dent in out single-use consumer cultural assumptions.
Here's a little Michael Franti song to spur you on. Is your love enough?
Bonus activity for those who like to paint the world by numbers
If you would like a way to come up with a goal for your numbers that are fair based on statistics, try this.
Calcuate your annual income per person for your household. Compare it to the average annual income for the globe. $1,225 per year per person in the household. So, for my household, to be globally average, we would have to live on $7,350 annually. Wow, what would that take?
Okay, well, we can't really do anything practical with that, unless you are in a position to sell everything and live like Jesus did. No, wait. I could use that number to give meaning to my giving. I could make it my goal to spend that much each year on helping. I mean, wouldn't that give me a good handle on just how priveleged I am? To be able to support my own family, plus support another globally average family? Or I could make my goal half that. Whatever I can make fit my life without becoming unhealthy or going into debt.
Or, let's just say we want to get out of that elite group: The 1% richest people on the planet. For my family, that would mean $204,000. Okay, well we are not in the 1%. And not many of my friends are, either, as far as I know. But, before we adopted three kids, that would have been $102,000. So, we were pretty darn close to being in the Elite group, the most priveleged people in the world. See, you can decrease your income by giving money to effective groups or you can decrease your income by adding people to you family!
But, the numbers don't really matter that much beyond bringing you awareness of the privelege you enjoy. For me, that awareness decreases the energy I put into feeling jealous and resentful and complaining about what I don't have or what I "can't" afford. All that energy can go into reducing waste and increasing generosity. It totally takes the fun out of "shopping as entertainment."