It seems hard sometimes not be be overwhelmed by all the need in the world.  There are so many issues and so much social injustice, it seems to me a person could lose his mind (or become hopelessly resigned) if he tries to engage all of them.

There is also the problem of short attention spans.  It’s common for the world (or a community) to be motivated to action by some dramatic or spectacular occurence (such as the Haitian earthquake or a massacre at a school) only to lose interest over time, as new dramatic or spectacular events occur.  We have seen that happen with Haiti, as we predicted it would.

When something you feel very strongly about captures the public’s attention, it is exciting.  When the public later forgets about it and moves on to the next big thing, it is frustrating.

But, to be fair, we’re all prone to do it and in truth there is just too much suffering and too many injustices to be fully informed and engaged with all of them.

So what to do?

I read this post on the Relevant Magazine site and it resonated with me.  Part of the author’s advice was to “specialize” in a cause.   That is, choose an issue that means a lot to you and make that your focus.  Ideally you will feel that you are in some sense intended to make that cause your work.  That is to say, it is your calling.

I’m trying to take that advice.  For me, it seems that my calling is to challenge our industrial food system, to try to offer an alternative to it and in so doing to contribute to improving the health of our community.

That doesn’t mean I won’t engage other issues and causes.  But it does mean I’m going to try to stay focused, doing the best I can to make a difference in the world.  I think it’s possible to stay aware of many issues, and to be passionate about them.  But for most of us mortals it’s not realistic to expect to make a meaningful difference in the world on more than one or two.  At least that’s what I’ve been feeling lately.  Any different thoughts on this subject would be very welcome.

9 comments on “Specialize

  1. El Guapo says:

    Have at it!
    Couldn’t agree more with the risk of getting overwhelmed by causes. All of them are worthy, but there’s a limit to how much 100% can be given to all of them…
    And it’s probably more fulfilling to tackle and make progress on the issues close to your heart than to be mediocre at several of them.


  2. Bob Braxton says:

    suits me to an I S T J (Myers-Briggs) – also good for splitting firewood (focus)


  3. Yes, I think you can end up just getting depressed and/or compassion fatigue if you try to absorb it all. Good on you for tackling the food issue – I’m KIND of feeding into that too, but our ‘issue’ is biodiversity. It’s pretty fundamental to life on earth so seems a good place to start 😉


    • Bill says:

      Compassion fatigue is real. That’s a term I was trying to remember when I typed this.

      Promoting biodiversity is a great calling.

      One of the things I love about the food movement is how it ties into so many other justice issues. We try to farm in a way that promotes and preserves biodiversity, and we agree that it is vitally important. Good agriculture is good for health, local economies, animal welfare, environmentalism/creation care (and the myriad of issues that fall under that), and lots of other things, all of which seem to us to be “good.”


  4. Sophie says:

    I’ve found that no matter how many issues get to me in my life, the one that always comes back around is the protection of animals. So I’m starting to think that’s what I should ‘specialise’ in.


  5. shoreacres says:

    I’ve been thinking and thinking about this since reading it. I still don’t know if I can pull out any coherent thoughts, but I’ll give it a shot!

    Sometimes, I see people choosing this cause or that because it’s the cause du jour. “Everyone” is into it, so they want to be into it, too. The “cause” actually is less important than being part of a group, feeling justified because of their passion, and so on. I know a woman who’s rabidly anti-fracking, anti-Keystone pipeline, anti-drilling. She’s been chained to a good many buildings and gates but couldn’t tell you in even the broadest terms what’s involved, technically, in any of it. She uses her emotion as an argument, and does little good for her cause.

    One of the great values of your blog is that you don’t do that. You provide information, along with evidence of your personal commitment, and you do it in an understandable way. Not everyone is going to “feel” passionately about food, but they still can accept rational arguments and solid information.

    As for compassion fatigue… One of the hardest things for humans to remember is that we’re not God. We can’t be everywhere and do everything and care about everyone. It’s just the way it is. We have to make choices, and we have to learn to live without succumbing to guilt over those whose pleas we refuse. If I have a hundred dollars to spare and send it to Haiti – what about those still suffering in Long Island? If I divide the hundred into two portions, that still leaves out the elderly who can’t pay their heating bills in Chicago. If I send $20 to five charities, what will I do when I hear of the village in Uganda that needs only $100 to complete a well in their town?

    And on and on… Need is infinite, our resources are finite. It’s just so hard, but decision-making is our pathway straight into the world of ethics. Decision-making implies freedom, and where there is no freedom, ethics becomes hollow.

    A last thought. It’s always easier to be “for a cause” that is “out there” than to confront the need right in front of us. Sending money to dig a well in Africa is good, but it never requires that we get our hands dirty. Giving a panhandler $5 for a sandwich is fine. Going with him to the restaurant to share a meal and conversation can be pretty danged uncomfortable, not to mention time-consuming and possibly dangerous. Choices, choices.

    All of which is pretty much to say – I agree with your perspective. 😉


    • Bill says:

      Very well said. It is one thing to vaguely sympathetic to a cause and another to invest your life in it. I am tempted to launch into a rant/sermon on that topic, but I’m certain I’d be preaching to the choir. I very much appreciate your thoughtful comments and I feel blessed to have the benefit of them. 🙂


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