I’m Done Trying to Save the World
From now on, my life — and my activism — will be small.
I’ve been an activist since before I was old enough to vote. It started when I was still a little kid, passionate about animals and the earth, pushing my relatives to conserve water, lecturing anyone who didn’t wear a seat belt or who smoked. I’ve forever been the tiny person annoying people, cajoling them into doing something that I believed was right. It was an impotent effort, most of the time. It remains mostly an impotent effort.
I was always someone who cared about things — big abstract things, hard-to-change things, symbolic and ideological things. And I was never big enough, energetic enough, outspoken enough, superhuman enough to actually fix any of the things that I cared about. And so I’ve always been filled with fury and frustration in equal amounts.
My life has been a cycle of passion followed by despair, intensity and then apathy, over and over again, an unending wheel of shooting too high, and then crashing to the ground when I realize, yet again,that I can’t make everyone agree with me or share my priorities.
I want out of this vicious cycle. I am sick of setting myself up for failure. And recent experience has left me believing that my role in the world is much smaller and more personal than I ever imagined it would be, back when I was an activist child who cared about enormous things.
My activism has to be small. As small as I am. I’m working on accepting that.
As a preteen I volunteered with a naturalist in the Cleveland Metroparks, keeping count of the endangered bats that roosted in a wooden bat house on the Rocky River Reservation. I wanted to be a bat biologist. I wanted to save the species that were attacked and killed due to superstition and misunderstanding and fear. I was forever informing people that bats are rarely rabid, that vampiric species seldom attack humans, and that insect-eating and nectar-drinking bats are essential to many ecosystems.
And then White Nose Syndrome came, killing far more bats than hateful humans ever did. And no one knew what created the problem. Or how to stop it. And the problem was just too big, too insurmountable, and so my passion, pathetically, faltered. I gave up the dream of saving the animals I once adored.
As a teenager, LGBT issues put the wind in my sails. My friends and I held regular Gay-Straight Alliance meetings, visited classrooms, and fought with classmates who saw us as perverse and damaged. We staged National Day of Silence demonstrations. We papered our school in chalk body outlines and the bios of LGBTQ people who had been hate-crimed.
And our teachers and principal opposed us at every turn. They said we were a distraction. That when we were too vocal about our identities, we drew attention and danger toward ourselves. And I got tired of trying to explain why fighting for your life is not a distraction, why we weren’t attention-seeking, why we weren’t a phase. And for a few years, I got very quiet about the queer things about me. And I let the world change around me.
After graduate school, I got involved in a campaign to shut down Illinois’ solitary confinement prison, Tamms Correctional Center. Every week we spent hours reading letters from incarcerated men. We wrote back to them, sent them magazines and photos they requested. And we walked the streets with protest signs. And we volunteered for politicians that we hoped would be sympathetic to our cause.
And then, somehow, it became all about getting those politicians re-elected. The politicians were non-committal on the issue of closing the prison. Yet we were told they were our only hope. And there was no disagreeing with it, no saying no to a long shift knocking doors in the freezing rain, even if you had a fever. Even if the politician you were advocating for had other views that were reprehensible to you.
Some months later, Tamms was closed by a politician that none of us had advocated for, that none of us expected to care about ending solitary confinement. That’s because he didn’t care about ending solitary confinement. He cared about budget cuts. And solitary was especially expensive. And so the prison was shut unceremoniously, and our organization became irrelevant.
From get-out-the-vote efforts, to reproductive rights, to anti-racism, to making Mike Pence’s fundraiser miserable, I’ve tried to fight for things I believe in. I’ve tried to make a difference. Time and time again I have yearned to change the world. I’ve left myself burned out and bedraggled every single time, when I’ve inevitably discovered that I am not a savior.
I’m too small. The problem is too big. The problem is too wicked, too complex. It requires too many people to change. Too many people are unaware. Too many people are unwilling or unable to radically restructure their lives to address the problem.
There are so many problems. They are all so large. I am nothing in the face of them. I only have so much energy. Never enough energy. I never come close to having the wherewithal that other activists do, the outspoken, energetic ones, the ones who I imagine see me as uncommitted, flaky, a liar, a disappointment.
It’s hard to keep going when every effort feels like it was pointless. It is hard to see the difference your tiny life has made in the greater tapestry of human existence. I think I’ve been unfair to myself, both overly demanding and grandiose. I am not a God. I’m not even an especially charming human. I can only make a minuscule difference. And that might be better to shoot for, actually.
No one would describe my sister as a political activist. She’s never voted, she’s never been to a protest, never been in an activist group. She says my friends and I talk a lot about “serious” things — racism, transphobia, sexism — and I imagine she finds it a bit tiresome at times.
But my sister is a trainer at a large high school in rural Ohio. A school where there’s one out gay kid who wears makeup, whom my sister always rushes to defend. A school that is racially diverse, but also crammed full of racists. A school where the start of hunting season is an official holiday, and the football team recites a prayer before each game. This is where my sister’s activism takes place.
My sister kicks athletes out of her office or from practice for saying racist, homophobic, transphobic, or sexist things. She’ll make varsity football players run laps for being condescending to her or to any female athletes, and she’ll make sure everyone on the team knows it happened.
My sister talks about me at her school. She has a visible tattoo that commemorates my gender transition. She calls me her sibling and uses they pronouns for me. And she takes no shit if someone is hateful about queer issues. If you say a slur or insult someone, you’re out of her good graces, no more Gatorade or ice or protein bars for you. Her office is a common gathering place for students, so the example she sets matters. She once booted a boy from her office for participating in the Rally for Life.
My sister confronted a coach who was harassing her; he sent her lurid texts and she called him to the carpet for it directly, and escalated things so that her boss knows to keep an eye on the guy. Her office is open to any female student who has questions for her about sex, dating, abortion, or contraception. She’s given her students long private lectures about consent and what a respectful relationship looks like. She gives her contact info out to girls who need it, and will field questions from them any time of day.
These are girls who had abstinence only sex ed. This is a school where awareness of social justice issues is minimal and many teachers probably harbor some seriously outmoded views. In this environment, my sister is a safe adult for countless teens who might otherwise have no one to turn to.
My sister is not an activist. And she’s better than a lot of activists I know. She’s better than me at changing hearts and minds, at reaching those that need her support, and changing the political climate of this country.
My sister does meaningful work every day, not because she has an education in social justice issues, not because her social clique is serious and purposeful, not because of a clear ideology or a utopic vision of saving the world. She does the work because she is there and she feels the call of what is right.
It’s not complicated or large or earth-shattering. It’s perfectly in focus. Appropriately scaled. She touches the lives she encounters every day. She has made her impact a core part of the work that she already does. She expects no back pats for it. She doesn’t do it because of social pressure or guilt. She just does it. I only know about it because I’ve seen it on days that I’ve visited her school.
I’ve been thinking about my sister a lot lately. All the world’s problems are so vast, and I am too powerless to topple ICE, too insignificant to turn back climate change, and frankly too cowardly to confront an even slightly aggressive bigot. I put so much pressure on myself to save the world. And then feel shame that I can’t do it.
And then I think of my sister. And how she is saving the world more than me, and more effectively, by staying in her community doing the small daily things that come naturally and that make an immediate difference. And I think maybe I’ve been looking at this whole thing all wrong, all these years.
I used to judge her for not voting. I used to judge all the people that didn’t make the calls, stage the actions, attend the protests, hold the signs, block the traffic. Often, that meant I was judging myself. Because I only could do those things so often. And when I did them, it felt inconsequential. Because it did not magically save the world.
All that grief was misplaced effort. All the theorizing and protest-attending and infighting and hand-wringing meant less than a conversation with a student after class. Or firm utterance of stop that when a relative said something racist. Or a text sent late at night to a distressed teen. That is the work. That is how we make a difference.