I didn’t always live with the outrage, despair, and disgust of my college years. In my high school years, I much more lived The Story of Progress. I desperately wanted to be impressive and successful and build wealth and status. I imagined the “good life” as one where I worked really, really hard until finally I“made it” to the top, where I would be fully satisfied and fulfilled.
To make all that happen, I strived to get good grades, go to an impressive college, and one day become a doctor, just like my dad. I got straight A’s through middle and high school. I took piano lessons for over a decade. I took four years of Latin. I rowed crew, thinking it’d look good on my college application, despite not having really any shred of talent or interest in it. I didn’t drink or smoke pot. I didn’t use Napster or other music services because I believed they constituted stealing.
I lived The Story of Progress not only in my chosen path of life but in my beliefs about the world. I cheered on as President Bush waged the Iraq War, believing we would bring peace to the Middle East. I believed poor people were in the position they were because they hadn’t worked hard enough (as I had). I believed the world’s biggest problems could and would be solved simply through personal responsibility and technological advancement.
It didn’t take long as a freshman at the famously liberal Universal of California, Berkeley to take a sharp term toward The Story of Decline. I remember vividly sitting in a large auditorium listening to Ralph Nader’s presidential running mate Peter Camejo speak. As he spoke of the injustices in the world and the urgency to radically reshape our social systems, I was surprised to find myself nodding along passionately with him. It felt like someone had spoken the truth to me for the first time. It felt like I was leaving my youthful naivete and coming to understand how the world really works.
From there, I went on to vote for Nader. I joined the California Public Interest Research Group as a volunteer to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling. I chose environmental studies as a major. Eventually, I took a job at a water sustainability research non-profit, dedicating my career to driving change in the face of impending climate catastrophe. I began posting passionately about the need for change on social change.
But after several years of this, I noticed something: I was exhausted. I felt beat up by the incessant doom and gloom in the media, amongst my friends and colleagues, and within my own psyche. The need for action only ever becomes more urgent, more anxiety-inducing. This way of caring was taking a heavy toll on me. It was hard to imagine being in this state of mind for years, even decades, to come. I looked into my future and saw burnout, failure, and dread.
And yet, I couldn’t quite conceptualize, let alone set down, a different path. Pretending as if the world’s problems weren’t there was just not an option.
I felt lost. Is it even possible to truly care and do good in the world without sacrificing my peace of mind and well-being? Is it possible to be a good person without being in a constant state of outrage, despair, and disgust about humanity and the state of the world?