I work for two nonprofit organizations that call on their members to live out their values by taking action to make the world better. So I interact with a lot of passionate, hardworking people.
Also a lot of burnt out, overwhelmed, tired people.
There are so many ways to do good for our world, and technology has made it so easy to push them--phone banks, rallies, meetings, forums, demonstrations, volunteer days, collections--that "walking the walk" can feel like running a marathon.
But it doesn't have to. I think, culturally, we Americans have trouble with the mindset that more is better and the busier we are and the harder we work, the better. Not always so. Sometimes less is more and not-doing is better than doing. Sometimes strategic inaction can be good for us and for the rest of the world at the same time.
For example, sometimes not buying a "convenience" that most people have means you have to buy and use less other stuff to maintain that so-called convenience.
I'll start with a parable, er, anecdote from when Mr. G and I first moved into our house. The day we naively let a pair of Rainbow vacuum cleaner salespeople into our home was one of our proudest moments, when we realized just how free we were from the clutches of the 1950s American Dream ideal of filling one's home with all the biggest, "best," and most complicated gadgets.
If you aren't familiar with the Rainbow, it's a water-filled vacuum cleaner, with a bajillion fancy attachments, that costs about as much as a used car. I giggled when I saw it, because I couldn't imagine moving or storing such a huge, heavy, unwieldy object anywhere in my house. Mr. G, who has an educational background in engineering, giggled when the salespeople tried to explain the amazing science behind the Rainbow "system."
"It uses the cleaning power of water," they said.
"So," said Mr. G, "it's a bong."
I almost expected them to try and sell us special water to go with the Rainbow, but they didn't. They did the next best thing: pitched some special essential oil vials you can buy at an exorbitant price to disinfect and freshen the air.
They had a whole rehearsed set they were supposed to do, which didn't work out at all. "No more messy vacuum bags," they said. Well, I don't use vacuum bags. Mine has a Hepa filter. "Your vacuum uses suction. This one uses air flow." Well, mine works okay. After unsuccessfully trying to show how much crud they could get off my (surprisingly clean) rugs, upholstery, lampshades, and picture frames, they said, "Okay, let's try it on a room with wall-to-wall carpet." Well, we have hardwood floors. "This attachment cleans your heating ducts." Well, we have water pipe heating. "It can clean out your dryer, too." Well, we line-dry. "Look, let's put in the DVD so you can see all the benefits." Well, we don't have a TV.
When we dropped the "We don't have a TV" bomb, they looked like they might run for the door. What kind of people ARE we? What do we DO with our lives?
Anyway, the pitch continued... "A woman we met vacuumed raw chicken off her kitchen floor with a regular vacuum and gave her whole family salmonella. That would never happen with the Rainbow. How do YOU clean your kitchen floor?"
Mr. G's face lit up. "With the cleaning power of water!" he said. And we also use essential oils from the grocery store. They don't need to come in a special vial.
The Rainbow salespeople were not happy, but we were. Wow, we said to ourselves. We're so independent, healthy, and eco-friendly. We know we don't need a bunch of silly, expensive, gadgets cluttering the house. And we can keep the $3000 we might have spent on a Rainbow if we were gullible.
The more stuff you have, the more stuff you have to manage and maintain. More stuff usually means less time and less money. Beyond the basic necessities and a few key luxuries, stuff doesn't bring happiness. So we've let go of "keeping up with the Joneses," whoever those neurotic people are, and quit shopping--except for the few things we really need or really really want. Which is less and less these days. Funny how being happy makes you less needy. :)
We also care about the environment and the larger world beyond our own two selves, so we also feel proud to opt out of the destructive cycle of hyper-consumerism. Check out Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff project for a wealth of shocking research presented in silly cartoon form.
No evil would exist in the world, and no heroes would be needed, if everyone simply refused to participate in evil. It feels good to say no to things that are unnecessary and harmful to our lives and our world. 'Cause no one's making you do it, and habits are made to be broken.
It feels good to say no to...
...putting gas in the car when we can ride our bikes on a nice day.
...buying and maintaining a dryer when we can line dry. The wet fabric humidifies the house, and our clothes and towels last so much longer.
...sealing the grout. Nobody gives a crap if it's gray instead of white. I'm not sorry, Martha Stewart.
...shopping retail for fun. Who does that? Besides my grandma? Is it the fluorescent lights or the rip-off prices or the toxic, designed-to-fail products that are so enticing? If my friends and I shop for fun, it is always at a thrift store or flea market or antique dealer or garage sale. Let me tell you, it's much more entertaining and creatively challenging. And if the stuff has survived previous ownership, it's more likely to be durable and high quality than a factory-fresh product.
...inorganic lawn chemicals. Hey, we EAT those dandelions and wild strawberries. We smile when they bloom. We can lay on the grass without getting carcinogens in our hair. We use a manual mower that requires no gasoline or electricity, sometimes mows faster than a gas-powered machine, and doubles as a workout machine.
...fancy fitness equipment. The infomercials lie. Nothing will get your ass in shape like a manual mower.
...pizza delivery. With no TV shows we "have to" watch, we have time to make our own dinner. Also, I'm spoiled from studying abroad in Rome. No American chain restaurant pizza will do. Last night, The Baked Chef and Mr. G put together some beautiful pizzas.
The Baked Chef even said "no" to kneading the pizza dough. See this glorious book by breadmaster Jim Lahey?
Apparently the necessity of kneading dough is a conspiracy invented by frantic, modern Westerners. Tweak the recipe, and zero kneading is necessary. It's the laziest way to make bread since bread machines. And the most delicious.
I don't think I need to explain the superior goodness of homemade pizza. The only way this could have been better is if we'd used tomato sauce made from my homegrown tomatoes.
Which brings me to a gray area of inactivism. Sometimes to opt out of something, you need to do more work somewhere else. Obviously, cooking your own meal takes more time than popping a plastic-packaged "food product" in the microwave. Making and altering your own clothing, like my couture-addicted friend Mrs. Waxx (previously featured for her sewing skills), requires learning and time. Line drying clothes and growing your own produce takes time. But they save money, and the time spent on these tasks can be very enjoyable. And I find that some of them, like mowing the lawn and working in the garden, increase my physical fitness and overall energy level. So I can do more when I make time for these things.
A life lived by pre-WWII "common sense" values is a more rewarding, happier life than the rat race of mindless consumption and waste. I've found that gradually opting out of unnecessary lifestyle choices has made me healthier and happier, with more money to save and more time to spend on things I consider important. And when we are happier, healthier, richer, and more relaxed...
We have a greater ability to say yes to participating in what we value. When you aren't needy, reaching out and giving of yourself feeds you instead of draining you. The Buddha said that happiness reduces suffering because happy people don't need anything and they love to help others.
Nobody should try to do everything--to say no to every evil and yes to every good. It's not possible. We do what we can. Careful now--let's not use that as an excuse to justify the status quo, because we could always do a little better. We just need to do it gradually. When we stop living on autopilot, just "doing what is done," we realize that we have the choice to opt out of things we don't believe in, and we have the choice to do something we do believe in.
Wisdom from the Talmud: "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to finish the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."
So start cutting the clutter and junk out of your life. Start saying no to all the extraneous crap that doesn't bring you closer to your dreams or support your core values, and you will find greater stores of energy and joy in saying yes to the things that matter most to you.