The Corrosive Myth of Futility

Too recently, the heartbreaking murder of twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary put the issues of gun control and mental health squarely in the spotlight once again – and rightly so. I’ve been following much of the reporting and pontificating about each, and am relatively well-versed in the subjects (thanks high school debate!). But, I didn’t think I had an original thought to write, so I mostly read, listened, and thought.

If you get past the gut-level reaction to generally “ban all guns!,” one sentiment you’ll find among policy-focused writers is that nothing works in gun control – there are simply too many guns in America (almost 300 million by some estimates) and we have a culture that glorifies independence and self-protection (with a gun symbolizing each). Megan McArdle of Newsweek/The Daily Beast recently posted a long, thoughtful piece about our inability to create effective solutions to reduce gun violence; I disagree with her on a number of points, but the thesis is indicative of the zeitgeist of the moment – there’s not a whole lot that can be done, efforts are mostly futile. I think this view is misguided, for the record, but a lot of reasonable people don’t.

Relatedly – in a roundabout way – last week, my project team volunteered at the Houston Food Bank, a remarkable organization that serves 137,000 different people a week. We spent the morning creating pallets and sorting food – tangible things that will benefit deserving people in concrete ways. But I still felt useless and couldn’t escape the sinking feeling that our efforts were futile, too – that we should have been focusing on the structural issues that make a food bank necessary in the first place, not the food bank itself. That what I was doing wasn’t enough. This was a pretty significant vacillation from my normal position that volunteering – however you do it – is an enriching experience that is beneficial for yourself, the organization, and those in need. But it’s what I was feeling at the time.

I talked to a colleague about all of this on the drive back, and thankfully she knocked some sense into my head: what we did was small and didn’t discomfit the myriad structural problems – but those take decades to work on and there are people that are hungry right now; children rely on the Houston Food Bank right now. Before we pulled up to Which Wich for lunch, I was re-energized and could appreciate the value of what we did. It was anything but futile.

So, two very disparate things – gun control and volunteerism – can be closely linked by their propensity to, at times, cause the feeling of absolute futility, in me and (I suspect) in others. Thoughtful people can walk away thinking that nothing enough can be done, that it’s too late or too hard to create substantial change. That if it isn’t big enough it doesn’t count.

But futility is a myth, and it’s corrosive. It leads not to inspiration but to cynicism; not to doing something grand but to justifying inaction (it’s never enough, anyway); not to standing up for what you believe in, but to sitting and complaining about the structural issues that render action meaningless. Everyone can make someone else’s life a bit better; everyone can do something.

Thinking that nothing can be done is the single-best way to ensure that nothing will be done.

I’m blessed to have friends – most of whom are smarter and wiser than me – who help keep me focused on that and knock sense into me when I briefly lose perspective.

I’ll leave you with the following quote from Edward Everett Hale* that grounds me in the able:

“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do. What I can do, I should do. And what I should do, by the grace of God, I will do.”

*Historical sidenote: Edward Everett Hale was the son of Nathan Hale, the American spy who (perhaps apocryphally) said “I only regret that I have but one life to give my country” as he was on the gallows. Badass.

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