How to Care About Making a Difference
Trying your unflagging best, indifferent to whether you're succeeding.
Posted Oct 10, 2020
“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it,” said Gandhi, though I think it’s often misinterpreted.
It depends on what you're doing—lord's sake, he said it to his followers, not the SS—and it's likely to be insignificant but with potential to be significantly good or bad, depending on chance but also how carefully you pick what you do.
Still, the quote is potently paradoxical: Insignificant yet important—how does that work?
I say pick carefully, do good as though it's of the utmost importance even though you know it’s unlikely to be. Do good unflaggingly irrespective of how it's faring in the world.
My dad gave me a life-sized trust fund when I was 16. I stressed about it. To justify that kind of luck, I’d have to do something really important.
By 20, I had signed a vow of poverty, giving away all I had to an organization that declared itself “out to save the world,” though we didn’t succeed.
At 35, I asked my dad why he gave it to me. He said that good work doesn't pay well. Money is made at money's sluices, the places where money passes through, and not, for example (and this is the example he gave) to school teachers, where all that pass through are our successors.
The rich get richer at money’s sluices and the powerful get more powerful at politic’s sluices, both at an accelerating rate, given compound interest. It’s a vicious cycle. Money makes money. Power makes power and the two compound each other. Money buys power that rigs the system for more compound interest. That’s true no matter what the system calls itself. “Communism” is no inoculation against that tendency.
My dad’s good works were aimed at countering the compound interest effect. In the ’60s, he gave Ralph Nader and Saul Alinsky early big money. Later he gave a million dollars to start an anti-corruption legal defense fund to be funded by business people and lawyers. Lawyers sustain it to this day, business people don’t. It was naive to think they would. I have relatives who scorn my father’s philanthropy as quixotic even though they would agree that things have taken a turn for the worse given our failure to check the corruption my father fought.
He woke up to activism late. Unlike many, once he woke he stayed woke. That’s what’s hard about wokeness: We awake every morning and by night, we’re tired again. My dad was tireless even though he knew what he did was unlikely to amount to anything important. When he woke up to the injustices fueled by compound interest, he assumed that that’s the way the world rolls. Downhill. Good work is Sisyphean. It never ends.
By 40, all of the good works into which I had poured myself and my money had proven insignificant. It ate at me. I was ashamed of myself.
By 60, I stopped caring about my reputation, realizing that if I didn't need money, I didn't need a reputation either. I still do the things that earn and maintain a good reputation. I still have occasional hot flashes of shame and pride. I just started doing what I think Gandhi meant.
I try to pick carefully, do it as though it's of the utmost importance but with indifference to how it's faring in the world, which—given the compounding of money and power—is stacked against it.
This month we’re fighting the frontline battle royale for the nation, the century, maybe even human history. My dad felt that way about his era and he was wrong. This is a far more important conflagration. But even if we win the good fight, the world will fall back asleep again. That’s it’s compounding tendency when left unchecked. Doing good is quixotic, Sisyphean work.
And to say that doing good works is of the utmost importance, there’s no need to get dramatic about it. Be unflagging but with breaks to kick back and enjoy the world that sustains us.