The only certainty we have in life is our mortality. All else is uncertain, though we like to have some sense of how our days will surely unfold. We will wake up in the morning and go to work; we will celebrate another birthday; the future will be brighter than the past. The quotidian and the milestones add up, and time marches on.
Last year was no different, though I felt much less assured about bright futures. Nonetheless, 2017 was definitely better than 1968. Or was it? Massive natural disasters, special elections, and the continued threat of nuclear war with North Korea underscore that we live in uncertain times. The stock market inexplicably gallops higher. I cannot make sense of the world today. It feels as if I am running in a maze, and I can only see the tall green hedges tightly around me, with no clear idea of where the next turn will lead. If I have certainty about anything, it’s that this year will be worse than the last. So much can go wrong. The Russia investigation continues; the Middle East declines even more; the Korean situation is deteriorating; and the president keeps tweeting dangerously. The end game is unclear.
What I find even more confounding is that we can exist on the same planet in such divergent circumstances that we seem to be living in parallel universes. I can enjoy hot showers and sip a delicious double espresso with steamed milk each morning. At the same time, people flee a brutal persecution in Myanmar. The juxtaposition of the magnitude of their suffering and the downright luxury of my comfort is absurd. When I see pictures of people in refugee camps or picking through the rubble of their bombed homes, I should feel outrage — and briefly I do. Yet the feeling doesn’t have a chance to linger before my eyes glaze over. The sheer volume and relentlessness of the images and stories have triggered compassion fatigue. As soon as I close the newspaper pages and finish downing my caffeine, I move on with my daily routine. The crises that plague the world are so overwhelming, I can’t even contemplate that I could make a difference. Why some people have to endure war and injustice seems random and meaningless.
Reconciling the fact that I am very fortunate to be living safely, not to mention all the other contentments I enjoy, is difficult. I feel guilty that I am not doing something concrete to help the victims of conflict. I wondered if I should be doing something radical like volunteering to pull Syrians out of the water in Greece, but leaving my responsibilities as a parent is not practical. Life with extreme uncertainty has rendered the gifts of the present in sharp relief. I have decided that my priority is to spend quality time with my loved ones whenever possible, ranging from my children to my dearest friends.
The world is changing irreversibly, and I know that I will regret not becoming one of the voices that shapes what comes next. When I think of myself in the future, I want to look back and remember the present as a time of action. Now is the moment to fulfill the obligation and opportunity as citizens to participate in writing the social contract anew.
I firmly believe that if we don’t take part, then we allow others to fill the public sphere with their ideas. It’s important that as many voices as possible are heard so that our society represents who we are as people. We must reclaim our power and actively engage in civil discourse. To this end, I have been working on a podcast on civic engagement that will launch on January 20. I invite you to join me in asking different questions — unobvious ones, and, sometimes, uncomfortable ones — to make sense of these confusing times, and find a path to our collective future.
Thank you for reading my blog these last few years, and for often giving me encouraging feedback. Subscribe to the Future Hindsight podcast and let’s create a better tomorrow together.
Mila Atmos is a columnist whose work has been featured by The Huffington Post, Quartz, and Medium.
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