Got into a long and interesting discussion with mom today when I mentioned that I don't give a damn about contributing something to society, because I think that society is an abstraction that will never be convincingly or permanently impacted by my actions nor do I think that there is any way that one person can concretely improve upon it. People who make such claims are bullshit artists extraordinaire. If you change human beings' external circumstances but invest no time, friendship, or knowledge in those actual human beings you're pretty much just slapping a new coat of paint on the same rusted-out, busted-ass, rickety old ocean liner. Or so I said. This is one of those conclusions I came to via the Peace Corps. Furthermore, I said that trying to fix social problems on a large scale was a big waste of time and that social changes were simply a completely uncontrollable process. I also claimed that the events we mistakenly identify as having triggered social movements were in fact just the first convenient excuse to come along at time when social change had become inevitable given existing social conditions.
Mom cited some contrary examples, none of which I can recall right now but she made some excellent points. Ok wait, here's one - the interest other countries have recently taken in Columbia causing the Columbian government to get all embarrassed, get off its butt and deal with the FARC. If other nations hadn't intervened, would things in Columbia still be the same today? Maybe. Given the rudimentary understanding we had on this topic, both viewpoints were based mostly on speculation.
If I had to personally take my mom's side of this argument I'd probably want to mention outstanding leaders such as Ghandi, Hitler, Jesus Christ, etc. It's pretty hard to say that outstanding individuals haven't had real effects on human history. Was there some social necessity present that created these leaders? Some void into which someone inevitably had to step? If Hitler hadn't led Nazi Germany, would someone else simply have emerged and done the same things? Or was it the individual will of these people - their unique existence and their conscious choices that was the real driving force behind the social changes that surrounded them? I'm pretty sure this is a topic that has been hotly debated by the historians, and I'm no authority to present my views on the matter, but it sure is an interesting question to think about.
When it comes to my own life, however, I've found that it's most fulfilling and appropriate to concentrate on the small, concrete, and human. When I said I didn't give a damn about society, I was being entirely honest. Society certainly doesn't give a damn about me, so it'd be pretty meaningless to invest my mental or emotional energy in that particular one-sided relationship. It's just about as abstract as a devotion to God, which is another thing that many people find meaningful and I just can't get on board with. Nope, I don't think I owe allegiance to anything besides the people in my life that I have enough contact with to understand on a personal level and if I want to make a difference in the world, I'd do best to start with trying to make a difference in their lives. In fact, I don't believe I have the right to go even that far if it involves neglecting myself, because then I'll just end up contaminating them with my own problems. If you can't even keep your own shit in order, what business do you have presuming to improve other peoples' lives?
Footnote: This blog post was definitely made possible by Kurt Vonnegut. I know I'm under no academic requirement to cite my (unofficial) references here, but in this case it feels ungrateful not to.