Auntie SparkNotes: How Can I Stop Feeling Guilty About My Privilege?
I'm eighteen and about to go off to college, but that's not the biggest concern I have about writing to you today. You see, I'm really interested in politics and such. And being a liberal/libertarian/socialist/anarchist/environmentalist, I have lots of concerns about the world, and I try to make my actions jive with my beliefs. The problem is: I'm starting to freak out and obsess over every minor little thing I do, and because I live such a privileged life as a white upper-middle class male in America, I feel guilty a lot. I feel guilty for eating so much meat because raising livestock the way we do is so inhumane and so bad for the environment. I feel bad for taking long showers because water shortage is a serious problem. I agonize whenever I throw a recyclable item into the garbage because there doesn't happen to be a recycle bin around. I feel bad that my parents are paying for my college while friends of mine are working three jobs or taking out massive loans or going to community college when they really wanted to go to a fancy university. Is there any way to just relax and stop obsessing? Is there a way to just do what I can, when I can, to make the world better, but not feel so guilty and agonize about every little thing?
Oh, yes! Yes, there is! And I'm so glad you asked, Sparkler, because you've got an amazing opportunity here to really engage with the world—and if you do it right, you'll never again have to worry that your privileged circumstances will make you feel bad. Why? Because you'll be using them to do good.
Which is to say: get busy, dude. If you have an income (or if your parents are giving you cash), set aside a reasonable amount—say, 3%—and donate what you accumulate to a charity or organization that you believe in. Read widely about the issues that interest you (including stuff written by people from the other side), and allow your opinions to evolve and change as you learn. And when you get to that fancy-schmancy college of yours, choose a few of the gazillion opportunities for activism or volunteerism that present themselves to you, and dedicate yourself to them with gusto. (A word of advice: choose wisely, and invest your time and energy in groups that are about concrete action and getting results, not about walking around with a picket sign and yelling to make people look at you.)
Because the best thing you can do, for yourself and for the world, is to turn that well-developed sense of justice and empathy of yours into more than just words. And beware: if you never go any further than talking about your beliefs as a liberal/libertarian/socialist/anarchist/environmentalist, you run a dangerous risk of becoming That Guy, also known as the cliche of a strident activist asshat who talks and talks but never listens, and never puts his money (or his time, or his energy) where his mouth is. That Guy is the bane of the social justice movement on college campuses: he's the dude who monopolizes the conversation at parties with endless soapboxing, and dismisses as unworthy or unimportant the issues he doesn't personally care about. He interrupts a woman or person of color or a member of the LGBT community during class discussions because he thinks that whatever he has to say is more important and insightful than another human being's lived experience. He'll spend all day telling people on Tumblr they're wrong about stuff, but not so much as an hour volunteering for one of the causes he cares about.
Dearest letter-writer: you do not want to be That Guy. Because it's easy to pay lip service to your dedication to social justice from the comfort of your campus, but making an actual difference? The people who do that are the ones who volunteer on the election campaign of a local progressive candidate, who get up early on a weekend to pick up litter, who travel with Habitat for Humanity to build houses for the poor, who volunteer as escorts at an abortion clinic.
And at the end of the day, That Guy will be loudly chewing on bean sprouts and bragging about all the television he isn't watching so as to impress everyone with his environmentally conscious vegan-mindedness. And That Guy, for all his efforts, will still feel stupid and guilty over his privileged position in the world.
But you, and everyone else who devoted their time, energy, and money to making a difference, will be far too tired, far too fulfilled, and far too full of big ideas to do anything but take a long, hot shower, tuck into a cheeseburger, and enjoy a lovely, long first-world rest in your climate-controlled bedroom, so that you can get up in the morning and get busy again.
Are you a social justice warrior? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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