下手の横好き世界5 by William Van Hecke

Incantation 2 — So what are you going to do about it?

Microcosmographia lxiii: Incantation 2 — So what are you going to do about it?

Microcosmographia is a newsletter thing about honestly trying to understand design and humanity.

This incantation works to transmute outrage, melancholy, and general complainy crabbiness; into resoluteness, tranquility, and general reasonableness. It’s a bit of serenity prayer, a bit of five whys, a bit of zen, a bit of Jobs “saying no to 1,000 things”.

This one has been hard to write about. The inner critic is a snarky Twitter account, always hunting for the most uncharitable possible interpretation of everything you say or do; and mine was mashing out critical brane-tweets all along as I tried to express this idea gracefully. I’ve excised about 1,000 words in this letter over the past several weeks. But here’s a short version I think gets the idea across all right.

When I catch myself spending more than a moment on reacting negatively to anything, I’ve been asking, Okay, so, what are you going to do about it?

This is meant in a compassionate way! I genuinely want to know. What am I particularly equipped to offer to ameliorate the situation? Is there really anything substantive I can do? If not, can I let go of it?

Rarely, it leads to an idea of something you’re actually particularly equipped to do

Congratulations! In complaining you have discovered a way to exert special influence on the world, shaping it to be slightly — or significantly! — more in line with what you wish it to be.

What am I particularly equipped to do? Well, I work at an absurdly influential company; any effort I can put in there to steer even a tiny fraction of a percent toward better is effort well spent.

Sometimes, it leads to an idea of something you’re equipped to do elsewhere

I’m parent to two human beings, each with an entire subjective universe unfolding in their consciousnesses; the accumulated influence of our everyday attachment will shape that universe profoundly. There are plenty of problems I can’t solve today, but I may be able to make a difference on in a generation.

Usually it leads to respect for the complexity of a system

Most problems bigger than our immediate influence are not as easily solvable as we think. My first idea of what to do is usually answerable with “so why hasn’t anyone done that already?” I can try to imagine why, and encounter another problem. “So, why hasn’t anyone done something about that already?” And on down the chain of reasoning, often to a sheer cliff I can’t scale myself.

It turns out that almost everything one can know about in our modern world is as out of one’s control as a star going supernova in a distant galaxy. That should feel liberating! We’re being exponentially more exposed to information about what’s going on in the world, but as individuals we’ve gotten no better equipped to do anything about most of it.

What if I allocate the influence I do have as effectively as possible, and then stop fretting? Not because I don’t care, but because I need to focus on areas where there’s a reasonable exchange rate between the impact I can have and the anxiety I take on.

Thank You and Be Well

I haven’t said that in a while.

Recently, when I wasn’t looking, my dear friend Jon Bell who has been mentioned time and again in these letters, created an ebook and audiobook of the Microcosmographia volumes to date, as an issue of his long-running publication Plebe, via his publishing concern He Wrote Go. The narration adds a layer of warmth and charm to the material.

Excised

Say I have a bad experience shopping at a big-box store. What am I going to do about it? There are surely vast economic and cultural reasons why the standard of customer service is not the same as, say, what I’m used to in Japan. Can I purport to know how to salve the condition of customer service workers

1. I’m not going to do anything

Congratulations! I found something to let go of. Almost everything one can know about in our modern world is as out of one’s control as a star going supernova in a distant galaxy. That should feel liberating! We’ve gotten exponentially more exposed to information about what’s going on in the world, but as individuals no better equipped to do anything about most of it. What if I allocate the influence I do have as effectively as possible, and then stop fretting. Not because I don’t care, but because I need to focus on areas where there’s a reasonable exchange rate between the impact I can have and the anxiety I take on.

I shall choose a benign example, after discarding a heap of much more fraught examples. A friend told me that they’re building a big highway in New Zealand, and all the little coastal towns that people used to need to pass through on their way in and out of Wellington will now be easy to skip. That’s bad news for small family businesses in those towns, and there will probably be a period of reconfiguration as people and money shift between urban and rural areas. This will probably be beneficial for some and painful for others. It’s kind of sad!

Okay, so, what am I going to do about it? Well, I don’t live in New Zealand! And even if I did I probably wouldn’t be about to dedicate myself to starting a foundation to preserve coastal towns’ coffee shops and bookstores. Perhaps somebody will — somebody particularly equipped to do so.

2. I’m going to do something that does not have a substantive effect on the situation

But why? If it makes you feel a little better, then okay, but… You must pay attention to whether the investment is commensurate with the effect that can be achieved.

Mayyybe on a trip to New Zealand I’ll encounter signage or pamphlets created by the aforementioned foundation that somebody could make, arguing why I should take a side trip to this or that town. Maybe I’ll go, and buy a cup of coffee and a book. Maybe nobody will start such a foundation; I’d have to be okay with that, too.

Actions in this category can add up, if lots of people take them. But a lot of us end up feeling way too personally responsible when there isn’t more that we can do to have a substantive effect, so we spend more angst and effort with ever-diminishing returns.

3. I’m going to do something that I am particularly equipped to do, to have a substantive effect on the situation

Congratulations! In complaining I have discovered a way to exert special influence on the world, shaping it to be slightly — or significantly! — more in line with what I wish it to be.

What am I particularly equipped to do? Well, I work at an absurdly influential company; any effort I can put in there to steer even a tiny fraction of a percent toward better is effort well spent. I’m also parent to two human beings, each with an entire subjective universe unfolding in their consciousnesses; the accumulated influence of our everyday attachment will shape that universe profoundly.

The more I can let go of things I’m not particularly equipped to make a difference about, the more I can focus on the things I am.

Excised

This is delicate territory. I put a whole argument here but it is difficult to write it in a way that doesn’t seem to boil down to “don’t vote”.

Maybe posting online, or joining a march, or submitting a protest vote, or otherwise undertaking some symbolic act really does have a substantive effect, sometimes. Maybe it prepares you to take more significant action later. In aggregate, these acts can add up. But I think it’s important for the emotional investment to be commensurate with the effect that can be achieved. Getting really, really upset but not having a productive outlet for it is a recipe for an entire generation of well-meaning but anxious and burnt-out

I can complain about, say, customer service at Target. But what am I going to do about it? What do I know about the business incentives, corporate training, emotional state of retail workers after nearly two years of pandemic, or anything else necessary in order to understand what, if anything, can be done?

I’ll vote, but I’ll also do my dangèdest to treat unpleasant, faraway election outcomes more like natural disasters than like crimes maliciously perpetrated on my person.