Have you heard the old joke about the idealistic teenager who tells his mother that he wants to clean up the world and she replies, “Good! You can start with your room!”? I’ve heard countless variations on the joke over the years. It was never more than mildly humorous. Like most jokes, it’s gotten less funny with each repetition.
But, as the humor has waned, I’ve come to see the wisdom in the joke. The world needs to be cleaned up, now more than ever. It’s not just that some things are going wrong with the world, but that most of them are. All the progress that we’ve made as a society over the last 100 years is being deliberately undone by evil and destructive people, plus climate change is no longer just a theoretically bogeyman, but a frightening reality. The world is both figuratively and literally on fire. I wish I could say that was hyperbole. It’s not.
And 2019 was especially difficult, because I could see how much worse everything was getting, but I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I couldn’t control any of it, not the government, the big corporations, Republicans or Democrats (or anyone else, for that matter), guns and gun owners, the climate, or any of dozens of the other things that were making me anxious and depressed.
Powerlessness in the face of so much horror is a bitter pill to swallow. I didn’t take it well. I hit a breaking point in 2019, and I broke.
But I’m not made out of glass, and I didn’t shatter, thanks to the much needed epiphany I had along the way. I don’t remember which self-righteous, nasty piece of work I was watching on TV when I had the epiphany. I just remember thinking that this person would take one look at me and my house, laugh at me, and say, “Hah! You’re a mess. Your house is a mess. You can’t even control yourself and your home, but you think you know what’s best for this world?”
That person would be right. (They’d also be a hypocrite, because you know that if you could examine their lives up-close, you’d discover that they’re even more of a hot mess. But the point still stands.) I do have a lot of nerve telling anyone how the world ought to be run when I can’t even run my own life well. But I know that I can run my life well, and I will run my life well, or at least better.
So, though 2019 taught me the painful depths of my own powerlessness, it also taught me about how much power I do have. I have power over myself. I have power over my immediate surroundings. And I think it’s possible that after I’m done taking control of myself and my surroundings that I might be able to extend my sphere of influence. But for now and for the foreseeable future, I am concentrating only on what I can control in my own life. I may be able to help clean up the world someday, and I hope sooner rather than later, but I need to start with my room.