How (Not) to Leave the World Better Than You Found It: Reflections for a New Year

“Think one person can change the world?”

The question stared at me in stark white letters on the cold blackness of outer space, our massive blue planet hovering just below it, almost mocking me with its immensity. I couldn’t hear tone, because the question was written, but I could guess the tone that was intended. “So you think you’re going to make history out there, do you, kid?”

Then my eyes drifted down to an answer they had provided, also starkly written on the black, below Planet Earth: “So do we.”

This was the masterful tagline that Oberlin College was using to draw in budding young idealists, circa 1998. It remains probably the greatest ad campaign I’ve ever seen for any school — higher learning, nursery, or mackerel — and, truthfully, I was primed to take well to it. After all, my first time seeing this message was in the coveted “thick” packet of materials indicating that I’d been accepted, and could matriculate in the fall of that year if I chose to. Oberlin was a top choice for me, with its music scene, its classic collegiate 19th-century architecture, the chance it offered to stretch my wings far away from my hometown — and, most of all, the proximity to other people who wanted to make the world a better place. After a spring trip to campus, just to check things out in person, I was sold.

The above bit of PR magic wasn’t the first invitation I’d ever received to go forth and multiply trees, human rights, or cures for deadly diseases. I had already gotten plenty of prodding from my crazy lefty teachers at a secondary school founded specifically so that the children of midcentury Los Angeles activists wouldn’t have to be red-baited on the playground by their McCarthyite classmates. The “So do we” slogan was by no means the last invitation, either: college, grad school, activism, and even (especially?) everyday office politics all forced me to figure out where I stood, not just on the issues, but on exactly how I could and should leverage my talents for positive change.

No, there was no one defining moment where someone passed that torch to me. I’ll just say, for now, that I’ve come back many times to the question of how to leave the world better than I found it — and have striven to build that into whatever job I’m doing for most of my income. After zigging and zagging through jobs in various realms of education, some of them very fulfilling and some of them hideous, it seems I finally paid enough dues to start teaching a course called “Speaking and Writing for Social Justice” last year at a large, respected university back in my native Los Angeles. The mission was still on track.

Then came the election of Donald Trump.

It is already a cliché that 2016 did for many Americans what 9/11 had done for an earlier cohort — whether you’re talking about an abrupt end to comforting illusions (especially the illusions of the privileged) or simply an unbearable blow to the psyche. In the pauses between all the amazing outpourings of passion and courage and solidarity, it felt, to many of us, like one giant step backward: a step backward for republican institutions, for social equality, for objective truth, for a baseline level of “We’re all in this together” decency. Things weren’t supposed to go this way. Not after all the slow and tiring labor that progressives had put in over multiple generations. I may honest-to-God still be in denial myself, but I know it affected me enough to worsen my already-precarious sleep cycles. A common lament was, and still is, that the ground that Civilization loses under a Trump presidency will probably not be made up in the lamenters’ lifetimes — striving or no striving, redoubling of efforts or no redoubling.

It’s perfectly reasonable to lament this particular turn of historical events. They were a stark signpost for me, just as they were for most people in the United States. But the fact is that I had already been acutely worried, for some time, about the direction the world was headed in. It was early in this decade that I found myself fretting, on a near-daily basis, about the inextricably-linked horrors of authoritarian, warmongering government; an unsustainable economic system, plagued by constant crisis for most humans; and our suicidal degradation of the environment. Ultimately, it was dawning on me that I was not going to leave this world better than I found it, overall. There was simply too much, outside my control, that was going wrong, and that had been going wrong for a while. The election just made that fact inescapable.

New twists on old questions began to emerge. How, indeed, does one I leave the world better than one finds it? Whom else can I emulate who has actually left the world better than they found it? To what extent did their talent, good faith and relentless effort have anything to do with it? And if those things didn’t have much to do with their success, then where in the world did I get the idea that anyone, let alone myself, had any business planning to leave that world a better place?

The final question, just above, has one fairly easy answer, so let’s start there and then tackle the others. I got the idea from the mainstream narratives of my own culture. When the above theme of “leaving it better” is repeated widely, by people ranging from Boy Scouts founder Lord Baden-Powell, a century ago, to Apple CEO Tim Cook, just a few years ago, a person tends to set some store by it. Of course, right now we’re talking about the mainest of mainstream narratives; I will go a little beyond them below. For the moment, I want to address the narratives in which the rich and powerful have situated themselves as scrappy, relentlessly optimistic pioneers, whom we can all be more like — even in terms of wealth — if we work our butts off in their companies, scrimp and save to buy their products, and fight valiantly in their wars. All of this is transmitted, very rarely with irony, everywhere from the Scout troop to the electronics ad to the Sunday sermon to the stories young children are given to read, going all the way back to the starry-eyed screeds of Horatio Alger.

I’d be lying if I said that absolutely none of this stuff informs my own behavior. That’s just what happens when you’re exposed to something enough. In fact, the same would easily apply to most people reading this. In my (our?) particular case, though, there’s the much more present narrative of my own particular subculture, with Horatio Alger and his descendants providing, if you will, a preliminary boost. My subculture is called the “Coastal Liberal Elite” by its detractors, while its own smuggest members simply call it “Civilization.” We are the professionals of civil society and adjacent realms, providing a range of arts, classroom instruction, non-government humanitarian services, public-interest litigation, and — though the steady creep of corporate PR is most obvious here — journalism and punditry.

There has long been a sense of destiny and even noblesse oblige in what we civil society people do: supposedly, we’re the ones slowly but surely leading the world out of prejudice, tribalism, and superstition, despite itself. One of our most tragic and water-muddying flaws, I’m convinced, is that we actually believe our own hype more than people named Romney or Walton or even Winfrey believe theirs. We believe it even as we snicker at Joe Lunchbox for hanging, breathlessly, onto every corporate shill’s reassurance that Joe is just a “temporarily embarrassed millionaire” (thank you, John Steinbeck). The actual One Percenters may say to their offspring, “One day, this will all be yours,” while we say to ours, “One day, you will make this all better,” but, whatever the variation, this sense of a chosen minority’s special burden, both a privilege and a grave responsibility, can really be found in either group’s messages. It’s easy to say you’ve moved beyond the sickeningly self-serving “White Man’s Burden” when you’ve got more than one gender, plus a decent sprinkling of people of color, in your workplace or volunteer-place. However, we all know that privilege — be it in racial, economic, or educational form, or even in the intangible form of an ever-fading societal status — can create delusions of grandeur.

Now that I’ve established that I ain’t really all that, I will come back to the middle questions from above. Whom else can I emulate who has actually left the world better than they found it? To what extent did their talent, good faith and relentless effort have anything to do with it?

Well, we can start with some obvious names of fairly recent history — Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jonas Salk, Audre Lorde. All of the above made a positive change with their lives, whether through innovative strategies of social action, or an important discovery, or a foundational set of ideas that they provided, which inspired countless people who came after. They truly left the world better than they found it. But what about the droves and droves of people who weren’t famous, and didn’t innovate, and still put in dogged effort over many years in the service of a righteous cause? Didn’t plenty of them leave the world better than they found it? For that matter, what about disengaged schleppers who were just sleepwalking through life, munching bread and watching circuses the whole time? Or, moreover, people who affirmatively harmed others with their actions? When you think about it, the vast majority of humans who left the world between World War II and now, left it better than they found it, just by virtue of being born at the right time. This is not to gloss over the utter misery that has subsidized much of the so-called First World’s comforts; that deserves its own library. The fact is that, as cruel and unequal as thing are in an absolute sense, the overall indicators worldwide — whether you’re talking about infant mortality, the body count of wars, or the availability of cheap and abundant staples — have been consistently improving for a very long time. It remains to be seen whether they’ll actually worsen in the coming century.

Needless to say, the heroes named above richly deserve their place in history, and I am not here to minimize what they gave us, by any means. My point is that it’s easy to get confused about how one expresses their greatness. My point is, in fact, the answer to that very first of the questions, How does one leave the world better than one finds it? The answer: One gets lucky. To tell the truth, “Leave it better” simply isn’t a good yardstick for personal character or achievement, whether you’re talking about the pluck and grit and optimism of my country’s civic mythology, or the empathy-driven, your-sweat-is-my-sweat ethos that you find in many other countries. There are simply too many factors outside one’s own control.

So we need another yardstick — another way of taking the measure of a person’s life. This measurement, of course, doesn’t just boil down to reading the quality-of-life indicators at a person’s birth and death, the way you would read a thermostat. Rather, the measurement I am using now is: Leave the world better than it would have been if not for you. It’s a good deal more of a mouthful, and a great deal less tangible or predictable, than what I started with, but I believe it’s the only accurate way to measure. Remember: you still almost always have choices, and there is almost always a way to leave behind something of worth.

What thing of worth, then, do we leave? Most of us would agree that it’s worth something to mitigate human suffering, even if we’re running ourselves ragged just to stand still. And if our efforts at mitigation are to work, surely it’s worth something to get a taste, however small, of experiences shared by the vast majority of humans, now and historically. One of those experiences, of course, is the lacking of a sense of agency over history and the direction of society. Remember, I’m not talking about a lack of agency, period — just a lack of the kind of agency that a privileged minority of humans has long ascribed to itself. Remember, too, that this lack of agency doesn’t necessarily mean despair, any more than a lack of agency over the sunrise or gravity means despair. It’s just reality. A sense of Capital-A Agency, whether it’s realistic or not, has always been the exception rather than the rule, and any strategy for tackling global problems will have to involve submerging ourselves in a reality that humbles even the most talented humans, and remains unhumbled by their talents. Is there such a thing as Civilization, and is it receding, and am I willing to give my life to bringing it back? Of course. It’s just that my subculture is not Civilization; the whole world is Civilization, and it has its own countless agendas that are different from mine.

But this unavoidable rethinking of our role in the world — especially for people in with relative privilege globally — may be more than just a letdown, a cold slap from reality that bids us to dial back expectations. It may be an opportunity to get out of the navel-gazing of the ivory tower and be more present with our own humanity and others’ humanity. It may be a chance to remove from our shoulders some of the Global Minority’s Burden, which was largely an illusion to begin with. It may, more than anything else, be a course correction on our way to changing the world for the better, together.

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