How to be good when the world is bad

Image from Unsplash.

This past year has been punctuated by a global pandemic, a highly contested election and a civil rights movement. Just one of these events on their own would be enough to make any informed citizen’s head spin. 

“Am I doing enough? Do I know enough? Can I remain friends with people who don’t care about the issues that matter to me?” These kinds of questions can leave people feeling hopeless. This year, I’ve been contemplating how to maintain my mental health and integrity in a world where integrity and health seem to be at the bottom of the priority list. 

I’m not sure if I know how to be a relatively good person in a relatively bad world, but I do have ideas on how we can all be at least a little better – and maybe make the world a little better while we’re at it. 

Stay informed 

While it is tempting to curl up into an ignorance cocoon and mute the outside world, one of the most important things you can do to be a responsible citizen is to stay informed. Try to expose yourself to a variety of news sources to get the most reliable information. 

I like to listen to NPR’s Up First podcast every morning. In 10-15 minutes you’ll have a rundown on the top three stories of the day. By listening, you can easily get caught up on current events on your walk to class. 

Reading a memoir or novel on a pressing issue is also a great way to gain insight into the world around you. Staying informed doesn’t just mean knowing the facts but also exposing yourself to new ways of thinking and other people’s experiences.

Unplug often

While staying informed is crucial to being a responsible citizen, staying healthy and well-rested is just as important. Quit using any social media an hour before bed. I also think it’s a good habit to wait at least half an hour every morning before checking the news. Find a few hours every afternoon to get some exercise or talk with a friend instead of looking at Twitter. This still leaves mid-morning and early evening for you to catch up on current events, all while maintaining your emotional well being. 

Help when you can and listen when you can’t 

As you stay up-to-date with current events, there are going to be some moments in which you can help and others in which the problem is out of your control. Learning how to appropriately respond differently to these two types of problems can improve both your mental health and your community. 

When you hear about social injustices on the news, find a reputable organization to donate to. Educate yourself, sign petitions and call your representatives. Vote for politicians who you think will make change happen. 

However, you cannot single-handedly fix everything that is wrong in the world. If you try, you might get so burnt out that you lose the energy to do even the little things. When a problem gets too big for you to manage, try listening rather than acting. Action isn’t always possible, but we can always seek to understand.

Your problems are valid, too 

One of the most difficult things about staying informed is that negative news stories can make you feel guilty for ever complaining. While putting things in perspective seems like it would improve your mental health, it sometimes makes you feel even worse. 

Just because others are suffering more does not mean that your problems are insignificant. We are not in a competition to find who has suffered the most. We are capable of simultaneously empathizing with the world’s problems and allowing ourselves a little grace when we need it. 

Don’t “stan” anyone

Stanning” people is a fad that has become increasingly popular. There’s nothing wrong with admiring certain public figures, but we cannot let this admiration hinge on obsession.

I don’t think a responsible citizen should wave flags outside of campaign season for a particular political candidate or run celebrity fan accounts. These seemingly harmless actions can make a person susceptible to indoctrination. Politicians and celebrities are people, which means they are fallible. They do good things and they do bad things. Idolizing them is a recipe for disaster. 

This kind of worshiping of public figures can also promote cancel culture, the recent movement toward boycotting people for controversial opinions and actions. When a public figure who we’ve “stanned” gets canceled, we’re going to feel a wave of negative emotions – perhaps anger at society for calling out our favorite celebrity or shame over having ever supported them. The best way to avoid the need to outcast a public figure after a scandal is by not putting them on a pedestal in the first place. 

Remember that accountability is a part of love

Perhaps one of the toughest ethical conundrums in a world in which every person’s opinion is plastered across Facebook and Twitter is whether we should remain friends with people who have views we consider to be immoral. 

Don’t feel guilty for unfollowing people who post these kinds of statements, especially when they are spreading misinformation. When human rights are at stake, I think polarization is a good thing. I want my views to be as far from oppressive and racist ideas as possible. 

However, hating a person is never healthy – especially for the person doing the hating. Feeling such strong emotions against another person will cause your mental health to suffer. Our culture needs a new definition of what it means to treat each other with kindness. Kindness is not passive. It never allows perverse attitudes to be displayed without criticism. 

Treating someone with kindness means holding them accountable and engaging in dialogue about why some views can cause genuine harm. It means wanting the best for every person, which includes wanting people to grow and change. 

You don’t have to be friends with everyone on Facebook or in real life. You don’t even have to be kind to everyone. However, if you do choose a kindness that encourages accountability and positive change, you’ll find that you feel happier.

The balance between being a responsible citizen and a happy citizen is one that I don’t know if I’ll ever master. However, I do think it’s something we can all get a little better at. We can stay informed while still taking breaks from the news. We can recognize that there is greater suffering in the world while still giving our own problems the attention they deserve. Most importantly, we can treat others with kindness while criticizing toxic and pervasive views. 

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