On “doing something”

I tweeted this more than a week ago. It hasn’t gotten better.

To Israel and Gaza we added Michael Brown. To Michael Brown we added Robin Williams. To Robin Williams we added the Ferguson protests and the mindbogglingly brutal crackdowns on those protests. To that we added ISIS and a “humanitarian intervention” in Iraq. Ukraine is still erupting, has been the whole time. And last night, police shot another black man in St. Louis.

I tweeted because I was, even then, overwhelmed by words and images. I know when I say this I am speaking from a place of great privilege. Other people must live the horror. I get to sit at my laptop, talking about the sensory overload I am receiving there.

My well-scrubbed, Jesuit-educated, noblesse-obliged, white-baby-faced activist self wants to know what I can do. There are, in fact, lists of things I can do besides tweet and blog. Some of them are concrete, brass-tacks activities. Some are about working on myself. All of them are good. Pain demands a response, not just an audience; otherwise, it becomes “disaster porn.”

But lurking behind everything is an attitude typical of my milieu: namely, not only must one “do something,” but the first thing one must do is “do something.” From here, it is easy to take a very earnest and well-intended swerve off the rails, because we don’t know what we don’t know. And despite every graduation speech I have ever heard, none of us are saviors.

Right now, I think the most important thing I can “do” about the things I am absorbing that are overwhelming me is simply to keep absorbing them and letting them overwhelm me. It is my small participation in the many lives that I have, for whatever reason, not lived: the lives of those who cannot just get up and walk out of systemic oppression, war-torn countries, or assorted personal hells by deciding one day that they will “do something.”

And if during this process I remain mindful and intentional, I know I will discern the small, matter-of-fact, shut-up-and-drop-the-mic, non-savior thing I must do–not what somebody else must do, but what I must do.

Because God, I believe, does talk to us personally. Perhaps obliquely, but personally. And God especially talks (perhaps mostly or only talks) when we aspire, as Pope John XXIII said, “to make the human sojourn on earth less sad.”

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