Feeling Hopeless About Our Impact

Is Everything Actually an Exercise in Futility?

It began, as it so often does, with an online conversation: after several exchanges on a controversial subject, I wrote the following: “Rest assured I have no expectation this will change your mind in any way.”

And while the person on the other end expressed remorse and "felt bad," it did not do anything to change her mind.

The next thing I knew I was in deep in contemplation.

Let’s be honest. Most of us do not ever really change our minds, our behavior, or our lives. That’s not a critique, it is simply the truth. In fact, based on ongoing research about our brains, apparently our minds are mostly made up before we even engage. We’re just looking for information or a story to justify what we already have unconsciously concluded. Barring a Road-to-Damascus experience such as Paul the Apostle’s that fundamentally disrupts our perspective, it seems we are destined to stay firmly rooted in our belief systems.

Said a friend, “I’m only as open-minded as my closed mind will permit.”

We could then say it is all an exercise in futility, though that feels rather hopeless. Or we could insist on the notion of freedom to choose, except if we look deeply into our lives we will mostly conclude that that is an illusion. (See The Way of Powerlessness by Wayne Liquorman, or Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity if you’d like to explore it further.)

Given this, why in the world would we then make any effort to engage, or work on our own development, or even act to any seeming purpose?

Sometime in the past someone told me, “Understand that little you do will matter, but know you must do it for the sake of your soul.” This reminds me so much of the work of the Jungian Analyst, James Hollis, and his book, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life. He would likely propose that we simply must do what we must do for it is the nature of the soul’s work, or our fate, or destiny if you prefer.

As I walked to my yoga class after these thoughts, I felt a heavy sadness in my chest: sorrow that so much we wish we could change for the better, even within ourselves, is simply beyond us. I felt grief that for unfathomable reasons, many hateful and damaging things will continue, no matter what we do. Even perhaps the things we wish to believe are useful to others or our world are (as the teacher Rhondell proclaimed), nothing but vanities of the self.

Seeing True in Action

If much is in fact futile, what then are we to do and to what end?

Perhaps we can work with our expectations, to release them. Perhaps it is then possible to also release our judgments and demands, even of ourselves and life itself.

What then would remain?

Taking pleasure in living, creating, and relating. Enjoying the experiences.

Maybe then we could simply live with surprise and delight.