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Earlier this year, I became unwell. I couldn’t work or do much of anything else. For weeks on end, I had to be looked after by other people. And it was excruciating.

I realized during this period that my self-esteem has typically been buoyed by doing things: being useful, helpful, and generally busy. Like most people, I enjoyed being thanked for my efforts, but even if nobody noticed, I felt driven to keep myself occupied. And, of course, it had always been easy for me to keep busy, because there was always plenty to do, in my own world and the world at large. But during illness, being idle — being useless — was horribly uncomfortable.

Now healthier again, I see that preoccupation with busyness differently. It’s part of my personality, a characteristic, rather than (as I used to see it) a perfectly natural response to a world full of things that need attention: projects to start, wrongs to right, groups to be formed and organized.

Six years ago, I wrote a book called How to Change the World. I’m very proud of it, can’t recommend it highly enough, you should buy a copy, blah blah blah. It was published in 16 languages, I did a TEDx Talk on the subject, and I’ve spoken about changing the world on four continents. I’m glad to say that people have told me that my step-by-step guide helped them enormously.

I mention this not to promote my book but to demonstrate how thoroughly I committed myself to the business of making the world a better place. I really went for it, big-time.

And after a few years, if I’m honest, it all got to be a bit much. People would email or call to tell me passionately about such-and-such a campaign they had launched, or even just joined, and I started to feel a bit sick. A bit overwhelmed. Though I found it hard to acknowledge this even to myself, and certainly never said it to them, I just didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to get involved in everybody else’s world-changing projects.

I needed a break.

It’s my guess that you feel the same, and more often than you would like to admit. From one hour to the next, you’re bombarded with distressing stories — on TV news, in newspapers, and on social media — calling for you to Do Something. And so you try to do your bit. You send cash, sign a petition, email a politician. It’s never enough, but it’s something.

More often, for sheer lack of time, you don’t do anything at all. And ignoring somebody’s heartfelt appeal, whether it was directed at you personally or addressed to the world at large, makes you feel bad. Not doing anything, over and over, gradually starts to make you feel terrible. You’d like to escape from it all, but part of you thinks that if you stop keeping an eye on what’s happening in the world, you’ll become a Bad Person.

Well, you don’t need to feel that way. And I’d like to explain how you can overcome it.


The first thing to look at may be your uncomfortable feeling itself. Is it even appropriate? What exactly have you done, or left undone, that you should feel ashamed or guilty about?

Recently, I spoke to a New Yorker who felt a huge burden of responsibility for something Donald Trump had done. But she didn’t do this thing. Trump did. The guilt was his, not hers. If he doesn’t seem to feel guilty, that doesn’t mean she has to. She didn’t even vote for him.

Feeling responsible for something without having the power to change it is profoundly demotivating. It makes you less helpful to those around you, less present, and certainly much less fun. As this woman told me herself: While she was fretting about the president’s actions, she was neglecting her husband and young child.

Now, I’m not saying she was totally powerless to help the children who’d been separated from their parents by Trump’s immigration policy, nor that she was wrong to be appalled by what she saw of its effects on the news. She does have some agency, and I’ll come back to that. But before deciding whether she should use it, we might first consider what can happen when we take responsibility for somebody else’s actions.

Turning to another sphere entirely, people related to alcoholics typically seek to alter and control the alcoholic’s drinking habits, cover up for them, and feel the shame of the alcoholism themselves. Children of alcoholics become caretakers while still young and can go on to spend their entire lives “rescuing” others. In the process, they suppress their own wants and needs until they don’t even know they have any.

If you see any parallel with Americans who take on responsibility for the actions of Donald Trump, that’s intentional. If you don’t, please bear with me.

From one hour to the next, you’re bombarded with distressing stories — on TV news, in newspapers, and on social media — calling for you to Do Something.

In Al-Anon, the 12-step recovery program for relatives of alcoholics, individuals learn to overcome the lifelong habit of trying to “fix” everything — having already painfully discovered, in many cases, that it’s impossible to control the behavior of others. They also learn that if you try to run somebody else’s life, you deprive them of the opportunity to take responsibility for themselves. Even with the best intentions, you infantilize them, and you may not be forgiven, far less thanked.

It’s not just alcoholics who might resent your interference.

I’ve learned this painful lesson myself. A few years ago, I was invited to interview representatives of the deaf community in the UK, where I live, for a campaign video. Afterward, I said, “How else can I help?” only to be told very bluntly that nobody wanted my help and that my question was patronizing.

I felt confused and resentful: Hadn’t they asked me to help? No, they’d asked me to do an interview. The word they objected to was “help.” It gave the impression that I thought I was special, better than them, reaching down from on high to lend a hand. I certainly hadn’t intended it that way, but I was (eventually) grateful to the person who was honest enough to tell me how she felt.

I saw something similar last year, in London, when the 24-story Grenfell Tower housing block went up in flames. Seventy-one people were killed in the fire. In the aftermath, well-meaning campaigners used words that felt patronizing to some of the survivors and families they claimed to be speaking for. It struck me, as it has struck me several times since, that campaigners who engage with something that isn’t their own cause must be very careful not to be seen to be doing it in bad faith.

Plus, there can be a horrible whiff of pride in people who constantly wring their hands about other people’s problems — as if they have no problems of their own. Through an excess of liberal guilt, they might say that their own problems are insignificant compared to the hardships of others. But who’s comparing? I’ve always been uncomfortable about the phrase “first-world problems,” because although its application can be funny (“I’ve run out of quinoa!”), it leads, by frequent repetition, to a sense that people with any kind of privilege should never complain or worry about anything.

You don’t need to be a widowed billionaire to know that privilege does not protect anybody from heartache. In therapy, practitioners try not to see the world through a hierarchy of suffering; even if one person’s problem looks more terrible than another’s, they both feel real pain. We all have problems, big and small. Don’t be too proud to share your own. Perhaps somebody can help.


One of the particular characteristics of the times we live in is the rapidity and ease with which people can share news. Only a generation ago, people got their news from a morning newspaper, drive-time news radio, and an evening broadcast on TV. For the rest of the day, they were generally safe from the distress and distraction. But today you can be hit by news of disaster and upheaval from all over the world at any time of day or night. And the more you are exposed to troubling information that you can do nothing about, the more you become depressed.

I mean, clinically depressed. You need to protect yourself.

The Good Samaritan wasn’t plagued by round-the-clock alerts and notifications bringing news of fresh hell elsewhere.

Try this. Imagine your four-year-old self comes into the space where you find yourself right now and sits on a chair in front of you. Notice how cute you were, with those little legs dangling off the chair without reaching the floor, and what a nice smile you had. Say hi. Introduce yourself. And now tell your younger self what you intend to put them through in the years to come: how you’ll make them watch and read things that are profoundly upsetting and result in feeling powerless afterward. You’ll make them feel responsible for all the problems in the world.

Does that seem unkind? Cruel? In role-playing games and storytelling workshops, I’ve watched people do this exercise with a friend standing in for the younger self. It frequently brings tears to participants’ eyes.

At the heart of this issue is the question of whether somebody else’s suffering is actually any of your business just because it flashed across your screen.

For many people, it’s almost impossibly difficult to accept that other people’s suffering might be none of their business. We all want to be the Good Samaritan. But your time is limited, and you have to make choices. The Good Samaritan wasn’t plagued by round-the-clock alerts and notifications bringing news of fresh hell elsewhere. Without that distraction, he was able to help somebody right in front of him. Well, guess what? Today, the people who most deserve your attention are still the people around you.


This doesn’t mean we should never engage with the problems of people far away. As I said earlier, we do have some agency, even in areas that have previously had nothing to do with us — as in the case of the woman in New York who was upset about immigrant children being separated from their parents.

What could she do? Well, speaking generally, there are three basic ways we can make change happen:

  1. Draw attention to an issue. We can draw attention to something nobody knows about or explain the importance of something that people already know but don’t much care about. The risk you take in doing this is directly related to the impact you might have: Sharing a petition on Facebook is pretty tame compared with, say, whistleblowing at work.
  2. Stop being part of what you dislike. If a corporation does something appalling, start a general boycott, or if you’re too busy, just stop buying its products yourself. If your political representatives do something awful, tell them why you’re going to vote against them next time. If you hate poisonous gossip at work, stop taking part. Styles of interaction are infectious, and your good example might encourage others.
  3. Create a better alternative to whatever’s currently available. If people like what you come up with, they’ll quickly embrace it. If they don’t, get feedback and change it.

I can assure you that this simple framework applies to just about anything you want to change. It’s not necessary to do all three. If you draw attention to an issue, others might create the better alternative or lead the boycott. You’re unlikely to achieve anything much on your own, so don’t worry that you need to run the whole show.

So, the question is: What do you actually want to get engaged in, and how can you screen out the many important issues you don’t have time for?

People clamoring for your attention will always be able to justify why they deserve it—that is, if you give them time to explain. But one important thing about being human hasn’t changed despite communication getting easier and faster: We can concentrate on only one thing at a time. And only you can choose where to put your focus.

Recently, somebody said to me that I must give more attention to reports of anti-Semitism, because that’s how the Holocaust started. This may be true. But I’m sure that other people could make an equally powerful case for other burning issues — all those lost immigrant children, for instance, melting ice in the Arctic, or the ongoing horrors of life in Syria. Only with hindsight will you be able to see where you might most usefully have allocated your attention. What should you do?

Well, as we’ve seen already, focusing exclusively on distressing topics is soul-destroying. If we stopped doing anything else until immigration policy, atmospheric CO2 levels, and the governance of Syria were resolved, there’d be nobody tending gardens and parks, making music, or excelling in competitive sports. And who wants to live in a world like that?

So, relax. Stop thinking about what you “need” to do, because that word need contains a strong undertow of coercion and unwillingness. You can’t save the whole world, and there’s no moral imperative saying that you need to. Be good to yourself. Be good to those around you. And rather than worrying about what you need to do, take a moment to ask yourself what you want to do instead.