Inaction for the Greater Good

She asked me before I left home what I feared most about my future.

I answered with inaction.  That is to say I fear my own inability to act in a future time where it is warranted.  It’s probably no the most common fear, and it’s definitely more tangential than other things I could have said.  But if I fear a life of loneliness or homelessness or cancer, the deeper root of that is that I will have regrets, that I won’t be happy, because I failed to act.  I guess I just know that already my greatest failures have been due to paralyzing procrastination, a kind of immobility that freezes you in a moment and lets all else fly by.  We can’t stop time, and sometimes the illusion that staying still means nothing will change can cause everything to change so much faster.

Indecision is probably most of my motivation for freezing up in life, especially in terms of things that I care about.  For example–first world problem alert, by the way–I haven’t replaced my cracked and falling apart can-feel-the-battery-inside iPhone 4, despite having the means to.  My parents have agreed to pay for the phone, and I could walk into any store right now and purchase one without (pretty much) any negative consequences.  However, I can’t pick a phone.  I can’t make a commitment to something I haven’t researched enough, and I’ve been disappointed enough in the market thus far that I haven’t put my money on anything.  Do I want another iPhone with all of the iPhone problems?  Do I want an HTC without all of the iPhone privileges?  And why do these screens keep getting bigger?!  Stay small!

But I’m not here to talk about phones.

It has been pretty easy in my life to do the right thing; my parents were very clear when teaching my brother and I about morality, and I’ve learned to live according to the rules.  While it’s not always fun to do the right thing–returning that $100 bill or holding my tongue when an argument isn’t worth having–it’s a pretty simple choice that only factors in how much of a disappointment to myself I’m willing to be.  Usually my tolerance for disappointment is fairly low.  But what happens when your desire to do good is sabotaged by misinformation?  What happens when there isn’t an easy good choice?

I’ve been reading some articles on “voluntourism” and cultural appropriation, as well as a deluge of Why Everything You Think Is Wrong type pieces, which I understand are just trying to grab my attention but still make me question everything about my life.  These articles have challenged my world view, like good articles do, but have also made me question what is right.  I’ve always had this fantasy that I’d get some great job or do some great research and earn enough money that I could go abroad and help those who need it more, building hospitals and schools and volunteering my time.  It was a good dream because I believed wholeheartedly that it was right, and I failed to notice that even with my good intentions, my possible future actions could propagate a culture of Western supremacy and colonialism (surprise!).  Now, I don’t think I’m too much of a perpetrator of voluntourism–the travel of volunteers whose goal are to experience the third world and talk about it later (I’m being cynical but more info can be found here)–because I honestly went abroad to learn about another culture and offer a hand where I could, and because I know my trip’s fees cover tools for the community to use so I know we at least weren’t a financial burden, but I still feel as though my efforts were less for the greater good and more for selfish reasons.  Can I be proud of what I did?  Did I exploit people with less means for my own gain?  Did I shape their opinions of white people as the saviors and the idealized, sabotaging their culture by pushing upon them my own?  As I write this, am I assuming too much power over another people?  Do I really even have that much of an impact?

Every article that I read makes me want to stop.  Stop doing, stop assuming, stop being the problem.  It used to be so easy to know what was right, it was so easy to make plans for a future that I had faith in.  Now I’m not so sure.  And so comes inaction.

I believe that the most we can do in this lifetime is to decrease suffering.  The universe doesn’t care if we live good lives or bad lives, pollute the planet or steal from our neighbors.  Only we will suffer for our crimes, we as in living things.  We can only use our time here to make a difference to other people and animals, and the only effect I see worth our effort is to make the experience of living more enjoyable, painless, worthwhile.  We aren’t entitled to a good life, but there isn’t any cosmological reason we shouldn’t work towards one for ourselves and for everyone else.  This is the only way we can make our own lives meaningful, and yet now I am afraid to act.

There is no way for us to know what will be “right” and “wrong” thirty, fifty, a hundred years from now.  Our societal values will shift, cultures will change, and our actions will have more unseen consequences.  But are we going to let that stop us from living a life with meaning?  And is chasing this meaning just a selfish path to selfish happiness?  I fear that in my lifetime I won’t break even–I’ll take too much, give too little, confirming my place in the universe as a parasite of my species.  I will not have acted, for fear that I would do wrong, and in that inaction will have done all of the wrongs anyways.

So yeah.  That’s what’s stressing me out right now.


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