There’s an amusing Southpark episode in which an online gamer is ruining the game by having a character with ridiculously high stats who kills all other characters before they can get started. As the execs of the company hosting the game deliberate, they observe that the player must be someone with nothing else to do, since he’s online all the time, and the scene concludes with the question:
“How can you kill that which has no life?”
(Cue organ music.)
The person with no life is indeed a fearsome thing to behold. Eric Hoffer refers to him thus:
” A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.
“This minding of other people’s business expresses itself in gossip, snooping and meddling, and also in feverish interest in communal, national, and racial affairs. In running away from ourselves we either fall on our neighbor’s shoulder or fly at his throat.”
(From The True Believer)
Hoffer was of course talking about fanatics, the people who had plagued the early and middle 20th century.
In the 21st century U.S., we seem to have the opposite problem: excessive apathy. Most people have plenty of their own business to mind, and public life is largely left to those for whom it is truly “business” in the strict sense, i.e., they make money from it.
Those of us who are in public life neither for the money or out of some of the bizarre needs that breed fanatics are rare, and much in demand for causes that need us. There is no limit to the time we could spend on it, but to have some connections with the rest of humanity we must have lives outside activism.
So here’s the bit of advice I recently sent someone by email:
You’ll notice that most of us, or those of us doing the most work, have certain characteristics in common. There are some exceptions, but most of us have most of these things in common:
(1) Age: old enough to know how to do a few things, young enough not to have major health troubles… 25 to 70 or so, and mostly 35 to 65
(2) Wealth: have our own cars & computers, don’t mind driving around the area from one damn meeting & “event” to another. Don’t mind some small out-of-pocket expenses.
(3) The biggy, Time:
— don’t have full-time jobs, or have jobs that allow some freedom in the hours we can choose.
— don’t have young children or disabled relatives for whom we’re responsible.
Time and attention are the really big things that we’re spending on this, and even if you’re well-off, childless, retired, and healthy, it will wear you down very fast if you don’t limit your expeditures. Here are some rules I came up with that got me as far as I got (11 years) before burning out. (This is not to say that I’ve always followed my own advice.)
(1) When coming up with an idea for something to do, don’t ever assume that other people will step in and help you. If you don’t see them leaping to volunteer and a clear plan gelling pretty fast, don’t push the idea, no matter how good it is, unless you’re prepared to do it all yourself.
If you don’t see people filling the parts that you can’t fill yourself, quit. Even if it means letting a project die. Even if it means you’ve wasted a lot of time trying to get it together. Don’t throw good time after bad.
(2) Put some arbitrary limits on what you will pay any attention to at all. For my part:
— I hardly look at anything happening outside Orange County. If it’s outside the County, it has to be really big, really close to the county line, and/or really closely associated with something I have ongoing to deserve two seconds of thought.
— Pick one function to perform, make it your niche, and don’t try to do everything. Myself, I’m mainly a list maintenance guy. You might be a writer/editor, coordinator, secretary, artist, donor, gopher, speaker, liaison, warehouse manager, or researcher. Sometimes one, sometimes another, but no one can be all.
(3) Identify time vampires early and learn to avoid them. These might be silly things like tv or video games, but are more often people who waste your time with ideas that are off-topic from your activity, not well thought through, or even deliberately disruptive. Remember that you are never under any obligation to read or respond to an email or phone call unless you’ve shown some previous commitment to the matter.
You own a phone and computer. They do not own you.