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.