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On Powerlessness

May 12, 2016

Yesterday, NASA's planet-hunting Kepler mission announced some 1,284 new planets outside of our solar system, 21 of which are currently identified as capable of being habitable, with potential of liquid water. That's a lot of wildly different worlds, but in the scale of entire galaxies, the range of potentially habitable planets are estimated on the order of tens of thousands.

For me, these huge figures give me more than just a feeling of mystery. That these fragile worlds can exist in such huge scales is a testament to the deceptive insignificance we have in the world, both as individuals and as an entire planet. Despite the huge impacts we've made in just the last few centuries to completely transform the world around us, in the long term, humans are pretty powerless. We can't stop nature, and sometimes, we can barely contain ourselves and our thoughtless actions.

You don't have to look through one of the world's most expensive telescopes to feel that powerlessness firsthand. I personally feel it most strongly in talking about issues at the global scale. From the Syrian refugee crisis to climate change and global warming, the biggest, most important issues in the world that affect billions of people are the most difficult to change or turn around, and worse, even if we as a society take some action, the changes and impacts we look for are often long-term and difficult to notice clearly when they eventually do take place.

Perhaps the most difficult part for me to admit is the feeling of powerlessness in the changes I can bring about, the impacts I can have in the causes I care the most about. I can sit here in front of my computer and impatiently type out these words. I can start projects, pull together clubs and groups, participate in events... but every time I hear the story of Syrian refugee children looking for whatever education that's available, or see pictures of inequality and injustice brought about by lack of voice and access to technology -- the issues that speak to my heart -- it's difficult not to feel like the work that's happening in my neighborhood doesn't quite cut it. After all, if nothing that I do really has a big impact towards the changes I want to see in the world, why bother?

If nothing that I do really has a big impact towards the changes I want to see in the world, why bother?

I think people are powerless by default.

When we don't choose to actively be catalysts for change and fight for that ability to have an impact in the world, when we choose survival and self-sufficiency over the pursuit of something bigger that lasts beyond ourselves, the default option we're left with is to be powerless and irrelevant.

In the average, mediocre lives most people lead, the one where you wake up and go to work in the morning, get lunch with your coworkers, crunch some more work in, commute back, have some family time, and then go to sleep with Netflix tucked under our pillows, people are powerless. Most people won't be remembered a century down humanity's timeline. In a mediocre life, the default option is powerlessness.

To believe in any small ability to be relevant to the world outside of our lives, to believe that whatever work we do can have an impact on improving the lives of people we don't directly touch, is to defy the default; it's to be an exception to the rule. It's to say we are not powerless, but instead capable of change beyond our small social circles. I think any kind of activism, any kind of belief in charity or giving or improving the world through small, individual contributions, has to begin with that exceptional assumption that people can be more than average, that people can be more than powerless.

Rationally speaking, it's an irrational perspective to believe that we can change the world. As Rob Siltanen put it, it's to be "crazy". But a world where nobody believes in what we can do isn't somewhere I want to live.

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. - Rob Siltanen