Never before has despondency been so deeply accepted as the state of being.
Look at our comedy — the TV series “Friends” normalizes a shiftless life in the company of low-commitment acquaintances you can occasionally have sex with; “The Office” tries to wring mirth out of the desperately sad lives of people stuck in a hopeless job with a vile, unprincipled, and cruel sociopath for a boss; Stand up comedians mock marriage and serve up candied bitter truths about the challenges in finding love and commitment in the age of Tinder. The impermanence of joy; the frailty of our minds and bodies; the vulnerability of our relationships; and our bewilderment in rapidly changing times are seared into our consciousness.
There are two ways that people exploit this despondency — performers mock it or burnish it to entertain us; more ominously, charlatans of various stripes play it up to sell us relief in the form of pills and potions, books or seminars, even politics and religion.
Data tells us that we live in the best of times. We live longer and healthier lives. A greater proportion of humans than ever before have access to nutritious food, clean water, and some semblance of healthcare. Notwithstanding highly publicised hate crimes, humans are generally more accepting, respectful, and equal, and societies across the world are working harder than they ever have to provide opportunity and security to all. Regardless of what you may read on Facebook, we treat each other, animals, and the planet better than ever in the past.
The good thing is that life is just too easy — the downside is that the pace of human progress has thrust our world into flux. The big black rotary phone that sat on a desk for decades is now supplanted by a $1,000 pocket computer that ages and dies in two years. The steel and hide family car which over a long life gathered precious memories and meaningful scars from from school runs, road trips and adolescent shenanigans, is now displaced by a citrus smelling leatherette-lined contraption that gets traded in every five or so years. Neighbours that you shared a decades-long history with are impossible to find in the anonymity of urban condo life.
So it is likely that this despondency has an external root in the erosion of permanence. But there must be an internal root too — perhaps this despondency has roots in a lack of purpose. The latter possibility is a likely one — our easier lives come in a complex world. The compulsions of a livelihood often overshadow creative and spiritual goals — cringeworthy “do what you love” Social Media posts mock our daily struggles to meet rent and sustenance — often in uninspiring jobs that fail to sufficiently challenge us physically, intellectually, and artistically.
Many years ago, when I was working a soul-sucking night-shift job, I ranted about my frustration to a close friend and spiritual advisor — an observant Jew with a religious education in addition to college degrees that allowed him to have a long and lucrative professional career. He listened patiently to my drawn out soliloquy and then reminded me of an earlier discussion on the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam.
The principle of Tikkun Olam (literally “repair of the world”) in Orthodox Judaism has its basis in the exhortation against idolatry in the Aleinu prayer. However, its significance has evolved over the years. Jews from the Conservative and Reform traditions interpret Tikkun Olam as a desire to perform positive actions for the better of all creation. More recently, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the last patriarch of the ultra-orthodox Lubavitch tradition concurred with this evolved interpretation of this term. In a world as steeped in despondency as ours is, giving joy or succor may perhaps be the most spiritually significant thing that anyone — Jew, Jesuit, or Atheist could do. My advisor suggested that performing little mitzvahs — even little acts of kindness that don’t require much time or money to perform can add a degree of purpose and satisfaction in life. I have followed his advice in the years since, and I believe that I am a better and happier person for it.
There is this story doing the rounds of the internet since the time I got my first Email address. A little girl is walking down a beach littered with starfish washed up by a violent storm. She’s picking up starfish and tossing them back into the water. Other beachgoers watch her with amusement for several minutes. Finally one man walks up to her and says “Why are you doing this? Look at the number of starfish and the length of this beach — what difference do you think you could make?”
The girl pauses for a few seconds — seemingly weighing the wisdom of his words. Then, she bends down to pick up another starfish and throws it back into the water. “Made a difference to that one” she says, and continues in her mission.
I believe that all of us — without exceptions have that little girl within us. We’re all inclined to do good, but we all have that inner cynic who asks us — what difference does it make? Well, Chaos Theory tells us that that the tiniest change in a complex system could result is a completely different outcome. Those little Mitzvahs will add up, and could trigger a huge change.
Now there are many among us who are lucky to be in professions where Mitzvahs are part of our daily lives. I know of physicians, religious leaders, law enforcement officers, and fellow fraud investigators who jump out of bed every morning joyous that when they jump back in that night, the world will be a better place. For those who don’t feel this kind of righteous energy in their professions, the universe throws up a million opportunities to make this world a better place.
Immediate family and childhood friends are a good place to start. Nurture the relationships that have frayed, and try to heal the ones that have fractured. Now these relationships won’t begin to work unless the other party makes an equal effort, but be the first to reach out. My own experience with reaching out suggests that people often linger in silent sadness over a relationship that has frayed and hesitate to make the first move to make things better.
Then there is the physical world around us — even something that seems too small to make a difference — If you fix a door that’s stuck, you avert the minor annoyance that all people who walk through may face. Who knows, you may have just defused the last straw that makes someone explode and say something hurtful to someone who doesn’t deserve it.
Lend a patient ear to your angry Uber driver who is upset about a rude passenger he just dropped off. You may make life better for all the passengers he will serve that day, in turn touching the lives of all the people those passengers encounter. Imagine if he passed on his rage to ten passengers, who in turn infect ten other people each and so forth? The entire city will be seething by sunset.
Find purpose in Little Acts of Goodness and let Chaos Theory take it from there.