I want to give up every day. That’s the value of acting in service of innocent people suffering. What motivates more?

June 14, 2023 by Joshua
in Leadership, Nature, Relationships

A colleague wrote about how she used to act more but now feels like giving up.

I responded

crawling through mud

What you wrote reminds me of how I feel nearly every day. I can’t say I feel the same as you, but I know the numbers and projections. I see the overwhelming majority of humans not acting — an even greater majority of Americans. Many revel in not trying. Many of those who try give up. Many of those who try adopt counterproductive strategies from innocent misunderstanding to outright greenwashing.

Handling the feelings and responses from seeing these problems is why I stress the value of personal experience. Trying to live more sustainably in a culture that at best gives lip service to it but largely ignores it is grueling. It means constantly swimming upstream, unending resistance from culture, community, friends, and even (especially) family. At every moment, the motivation to take it easy, go with the flow, and do what everyone else is doing feels almost overwhelming.

The top task of someone trying may be to feel, understand, and manage their emotions and responses, all the more if you’re trying to lead others. I have had to find role models who have persevered to lead others, mental models for resilience and inspiration, experience, vision for a brighter future, and more. For examples of role models, Nelson Mandela became President after 27 years imprisoned, Harriet Tubman faced mortal danger and lived to save others, saying “If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going”, Thomas Clarkson worked for decades tirelessly to help make slavery illegal in England, and many others.

For examples of mental models, Cornell research projected that by 2100, there may be one to two billion climate refugees. Many people might see in that difference just some big numbers, but that difference is a billion people whose suffering or not depends on what we—you and I—do today. Everything I do matters. I can help reduce the suffering of billions of people. There are levels of disaster, not black and white, even in a crash or collapse. What we do today matters. To clarify, I’m not saying you should agree with my view. I’m sharing one example of a view that keeps me going.

For examples of experience, all my climbing up and down eleven flights of stairs a couple times a day, four or five days a week for over a year force me to ask why I’m doing it. I can make enough money to ignore these problems. So why do I do it if not for my comfort and convenience? My effort has revealed many reasons, but the biggest may be because it forces me to learn about cultures who still exist who live sustainably around the world. I ask myself what I can learn from them, including cultures that have thrived tens of thousands of years or more. If they can, we can. I also think of people already suffering and how I can help them. Climbing those stairs, leading workshops, writing my book, avoiding flying, avoiding packaged food, and all these things force me to put their life-and-death interests forefront. That’s love. These activities teach me a love for people, humanity, nature, and more that frankly my culture has taught me to give up on. I don’t usually talk about love. I’m not a tree-hugger, hippy, new-age type, or other groups that talk about love more than I do. But these experiences have increased the amount and quality of love in my life, replacing isolation. To clarify again, I’m not saying others should think or feel like me; I’m sharing how my actions motivate me to act more.

Another mental model example: say someone wants to lift weights to put on muscle. It’s easy to figure out what weights to lift, how much, and how often. That’s not the hard part. The hard parts are keeping it up for the years it takes; handling when friends or family suggest you won’t make it; what do you do when you get injured; you have to figure out diet, sleep, and other exercise; what about when you feel like giving up; what about when your friends invite you to dinner when you planned to lift; and all sorts of other things. The value of an experienced role model is huge there, or to have experience yourself from overcoming similar challenges before.

I don’t know if I’ve addressed what you wrote about, but I don’t want to discount it and wanted to share that I’m not acting blindly or naively. On the contrary, I feel like giving up nearly every day. Each time I persevere, I learn a new way to motivate myself to keep going. If everyone stopped polluting and depleting today, we can’t change the past, meaning centuries of more environmental degradation. Nonetheless, I will continue acting to minimize suffering and increase our chances of maintaining what makes life worth living for as many people as I can. Because everything I do affects everyone and that’s beautiful.

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