The Humanist Dilemma: When the Aid Impulse Collides with a Sense of Futility

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?

Send your questions to The Humanist Dilemma at (subject line: Humanist Dilemma).

All inquiries are kept confidential.

Overwhelmed by Need to Help: Everywhere I look, I see urgent problems without realistic solutions. I see the environment turning increasingly uninhabitable; people succumbing to natural disasters, recurrent famine, and endless wars; governments oppressing their own and other people; races, religions, and political parties at each other’s throats; companies and legislators in cahoots to price-gouge medical care and life-saving drugs; powerful lobbies undoing all the social progress we’ve made on civil and women’s rights; leaders claiming to be above the law, and those who should uphold the truth burying it; protests that fail to bring about any change; elections that are stolen; daily reports of attacks on churches, schools, and people just trying to live their lives; nations turning their backs on victims of oppression; polarizing arguments about fact and fiction. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

Sometimes I feel I should just stop watching the news, stop wasting my time voting and protesting, stop supporting candidates and causes. The more I strive to do something positive about all this, the more negative I feel. How do I pull out of this spiral? Should I just give up?

—My Problem Is Wanting to Fix Problems


Dear Problems,

I wonder if any thinking, caring person doesn’t feel the same way you do now and then, if not as a constant undercurrent. If problems were easy to solve, we wouldn’t have so many. I often look at how every two people (spouses, siblings, colleagues) have disagreements and then extrapolate that out to towns, states, and nations—and wonder how we manage to get anything accomplished at all, ever.

I just ran across a quote from playwright and novelist Jan de Hartog: “Do not commit the error, common among the young, of assuming that if you cannot save the whole of mankind, you have failed.” Although I wouldn’t limit that error to the young, it’s certainly a mistake to think the whole of humanity can be saved. To avoid failure, we need to keep backing into smaller and smaller goals until we find ones we might possibly succeed with. For instance, I’m writing this on Earth Day. The news is doing a story about people who pick up trash while they jog. Anyone can grab a bag (not just on Earth Day), head outside, fill it with whatever trash you find around you, and make where you have been a little nicer. And if others do the same, together we’ll make quite a bit of progress. Just check out the difference a few people can make. You can also hold doors open for others, especially if they have a cane or a baby stroller or packages. You can campaign for someone you believe in and know that even if they lose, or disappoint you after they win, you tried and can try again.

Everyone makes their own choices, consciously or unconsciously, about how engaged and energetic to be when it comes to making the world a better place. At one extreme are those who just pursue their own interests with no regard for the world beyond their needs. And that’s OK if they’re not harming others—and they’re probably contributing economically by buying goods and services that make jobs for those who need them. At the other extreme are those who figuratively (and in some cases, literally) give their lives to causes. In between there are infinite variations regarding what to do and how to do it. That’s where doing what you can, according to your abilities and inclinations, comes in.

I like to believe that, like the over-arching trend of the stock market (so far), the world overall is getting better, despite the wrenching dips, setbacks, and disasters that makes us wring our hands in despair. Steven Pinker makes the case for improvement with lots of supporting data in his latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, but even if it weren’t true, why not behave as if it is? If life is inherently without meaning, we can invent our own meaning to give ourselves purpose and pleasure. (As long as we don’t top it off with a man in the sky telling everyone what to do.)

It’s also okay to take a respite from all your concerns. Give yourself permission to turn off the news, stop thinking about the ills of the world, and just do whatever you feel like, whether it’s sitting on a bench somewhere, treating yourself to something sweet, watching a mindless movie, taking a walk without a destination (or a trash bag), or spending a weekend in bed. Beyoncé was quoted saying when things feel really awful, she gives herself twenty-four hours to wallow, and then she gets back to work. Maybe you need more than a day, or a week, but take some time off from obsessing about everything. You’ll never heal the world. No one will. But each of us can find some niche to improve, whether it’s adopting abandoned pets, building hospitals in disaster areas, or changing how millions of people think and act. Take a breath, take a break, and then pick a direction—any direction—and proceed, one step at a time.