What Can be Done?

Faced with the ills of the world it is not uncommon to ask, What can be done?

This may be regret, heaved with a heavy sigh – what can be done?

Or it may be hope, seeking tactical advantage – what can be done?

Either way the question is the same. Whether the problems of the world seem utterly insurmountable or whether scrappy solutions seem effective enough, the question remains: what can be done?

The question itself is arguably disempowering – conjuring images of far-off experts or distant lands. What can be done [by those in power]? The question seems to ask.

In civic studies, we focus on an individual’s agency and on the collective power of people. Instead of asking what can be done, we ask what can we do?

What can be done by you and I? What can be done collectively by anyone seeking solutions to our most challenging problems? What steps can you and I take today, tomorrow, and ever onward to make the world better? What can we do?

The question is a daunting one. Putting the focus on ourselves puts the pressure on ourselves. What can we do?

What can I do?

I could do nothing. An option, perhaps, but a wholly dissatisfying one.

I could do something. A more promising tack, but with many questions in its wake. What something should I do? How much something is enough?

There is no solution, no easy formula, no simple way of knowing that x number of hours or y number of dollars fulfills your moral obligations to your fellow man. So still we are left with the question, what can we do?

You can try to logic your way into an answer – I shouldn’t give so much time that I burn out, I shouldn’t give more philanthropically than is sustainable. But to me those answers always feel hollow.

There is always more work to be done. There is always more I could give.

And then there are the myriad challenges for which I have no solutions. For which I have no knowledge and no real capacity to bring about positive change. Thousands are dying in Nigeria.

What can I do?

The haunting answer maybe nothing.

There are certainly things in this world which are beyond my control. I’ve no powers over life or death, over good fortune or ill. There are times when you have to let go. There are times when there is nothing to be done.

But this doesn’t have to be an icy fate. Even knowing the odds, knowing the challenges, knowing how little power we have in the face of cataclysmic challenges. Even knowing all this we can still pause and ask…

What can we do?


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