This post was originally posted on my personal site, but thought the subject matter fit Dev.To well enough that I cross-posted it here.
This blog post, like many others I've written, starts with an insecurity.
In this case it was when I saw a tweet from a coworker. It revealed they were a leader in a community event organization, which promoted equity among under-represented groups in vital areas like transport and education. I was obviously glad for them, both in how they made a difference and that this important work was being done. But I can't deny some twinges of jealousy mixed in, and not because they were also a better smiler and dresser. I'd long since gotten over that, as I try to tell myself.
No, here my thoughts were I'm a programmer, whose work is limited almost entirely to the digital realm. There's a coworker doing more tangible good for the city. Seeing how much more others are doing to live for others always makes me question how I spend my time. How I focus so much on building my programming skills when maybe I should focus more on directly helping others.
Most of all, it makes me wonder what difference I can make a difference if my life is mostly about writing and coding. If only a life lived for others is worth living, then how much is something like a program really worth? What good can a blog post do in the world? We can't rely on blog posts to build affordable housing until the cyber apocalypse, and by then who knews where I'll be and how many limbs I'll have left!
Honestly, I don't know if I have a real answer to this worry of mine. I probably never will. But I've found a few tricks to make things easier when the question inevitably pops up again. Hopefully they can also help others who feel the same.
This mental rush to judge myself makes it easy to overlook a few facts:
- I'm not personally responsible for all the horrible things around me, so I don't need to put the entire burdeon of fixing them on myself.
- I shouldn't feel guilty taking time to focus on myself or my career. No one else will live my life for me, so sometimes I need to be selfish to move forward.
And perhaps the most important one:
- Positive change can be worthwhile whether it's big or small.
I don't need to fix things for all the homeless problems in my city. Organizations of people have been trying to for years and the problem is still there. It's unrealistic to assume I'll be what fixes it for good. But I can make problems like that better, even just a little. That's more than nothing, and it's a lot to the people it helps.
One form this takes for me is how many people read what I write. I can't expect everyone to read my posts about accessibility or blogging habits, and then everyone to take that advice and miraculously solve those problems. But they can still help a handful of people in a big way. The effects it has on them can then affect people they know, and it ripples out from there. Even if it's as small as helping a fellow programmer I respect, like so:
No single person can fix a huge issue by myself, whether it's web accessibility or homelessness. That just makes the small improvements all the more important.
Like many Americans for the last few years, I've handled the relentlessly negative climate by shrinking into a cynical shell. It's easier to run away from bad news with uncaring snark. I don't blame anyone for this - it's usually done out of self-preservation than wanting to be a jerk. People have plenty of other reasons to be jerks anyway.
But there's a key drawback to this cynicism I only realized now: part of my cynicism was thinking change is impossible and pointless. By entension, it killed all my motivation to change or improve things. As you'd expect, "wanting to do more good" and "having no desire to change anything" don't fit well together.
Act as if what you do makes a difference, it does.
~ William James
So if I'm not more empathetic for personal or moral reasons, there's at least a pragmatic reason. Feeling empathy and compassion for people worse off is painful, but that pain is an extra push for me to do something. That push stems from trying to feel some of the pain of those worse off than me, so doing something helps ease it for myself as well as them.
It's not easy being compassionate today, but that makes feeling so all the more valuable and important. Just feeling that, and all the pain it may bring, helps me know I'm on the right path to living for others.
There's another, kind of obvious reason I'm not created a local non-profit to help others: I probably wouldn't be too good at it.
I've written before about accepting I can never be some people I admire the most, like a fictional attorney I have a major mancrush on. I can also accept there's many things I'm not good at: playing organized sports, using Charger weapons in Splatoon 2, or removing a paper trail when trying to secretly dump something in the ocean. The biggest lessons I've learned from all these failures are:
- Storage garages are a great backup place to store undesirable things as long as they're room temperature and filled with plenty of sponges and silly putty for...safety reasons.
- I should accept who I am and make use of my own strengths. I may not reach my ideals, but I'll find a way to do something.
The second lesson applies here almost perfectly. I probably don't have the skills to do all the good I'd pressure myself to in a non-profit area, since my business management and networking is mediocre at best. But I can find ways to use my (supposed) skills in writing, programming, and text-editor shortcuts to help others. It's part of why I've focused more on web accessibility, since it's all about helping others while in the field I love.
It's important to do what I can. Especially because there are always people out there, perhaps more than I'd expect, that can't do it.
When all else fails, sometimes I think it's enough to be a positive presence around others. We can't always be working towards some larger, or sometimes any goal at all. So finding any way to make those around us feel even a bit happier may be enough. This can take many forms, like:
- Being funny. Almost everyone likes jokes! If they don't, grab your nail gun and get to higher ground.
- Valuing others' work and skills.
- Complimenting something you've noticed about someone.
- Pass on knowledge to those who need it, as is often the case with coders trying to give back.
- If they look upset, asking if there's something you could do to help. Even if it's just listening to what's on their mind.
- Hack into their computers to see whose bothering them, and mail said people constant glitter bombs.
- Writing a blog post that cheers people up or inspires them, if only for a moment.
Sometimes this is all I can do, but it's always the bare minimum of what I can do to help others. The whole point of living selflessly is making others feel better, and we all get small chances to do so in our everyday interactions with others.
So I'm once again asking myself: as a coder and a writer, what good can something like a blog post do for the world?
Obviously I need to accept I'll never do as much good as people who devote their lives to their communities helping the homeless. But that doesn't mean I can't do anything at all. I can still channel my strengths into other ways to help people, which are smaller but still do good. I need to savor the small victories, and whatever ripple effects they have, that much more.
I can make web applications more accessible. I can write posts to inspire, comfort, and even amuse others. I can make people feel a bit happier or more relaxed when they see me around (still working on this one). I can unleash the power of my fifth chakra and demolish an entire warehouse, but choose not to for insurance reasons. My point is there's always something a person can do, big or small, to give back. As long as they're caring and willing to try, I believe they can find a way.
Maybe I'll never do as much good as this coworker. I can still do as much good as I myself can. Because once I believe I can make any kind of difference, I actually start to.