I just can’t “do” pettiness. I have petty thoughts and moments like everyone else, but when the time comes to act petty – to do something that really crosses a line, I can’t do it. And I don’t see how anyone can. Are people so hollow that they must extract a momentary ‘victory’ or pinprick of self-satisfaction from things that will hurt others or ultimately just be a pile of nothingness? Here I think of everything from going out of one’s way to genuinely hurt or threaten someone else because of one’s own childish impulses (and by hurt or threaten, I am talking about actual things, such as launching things into the world that could jeopardize another person’s livelihood or cause problems in his/her daily life) to the daily pettiness, such as spewing anger, hatred, outsized frustration about things that don’t matter, that could easily be ignored, just feeling a need to stir up trouble.
It’s hard to let the impulse toward pettiness take hold. I spend so much time immersed in books about Soviet prison camps, slavery, civil rights, the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, climate change, neoliberal paths to failure and destruction, civil war, post-colonial problems, Ebola, poverty, lack of access to and other disasters in healthcare, discrimination and so many other things that are just so much bigger than whether someone cut you off in traffic, whether your roommate swept a few crumbs off the kitchen counter, whether you feel a little lonely and blue, whether your bourgeois concerns, such as forgetting to cancel a scheduled grocery delivery when you’re out of town, send you into a panic. It’s not that those things don’t matter at all – it’s just that I don’t understand how and why anyone can really get so worked up about them. Is it just that the world is so full of interwoven, complex problems and so much human-on-human, human-created misery that it becomes necessary to go inward, become hyperfocused on the petty and immediate surroundings just to get through?
No doubt: humanity is cruel and ugly – defined in so many cases and total epochs by sheer brutality – my choice of reading and viewing materials are constant reminders that this ugliness is universal, eternal and takes very little to provoke and escalate. I do this to myself, though, creating this chasm between the daily mundane (convincing myself it doesn’t matter) and the big awful (things that, in most cases, I can’t do anything to correct or change anyway). It is perhaps just as nihilistic to find no middle ground where cruelties, ills and evils cannot be mitigated in some way.
I try. Step by step, individual by individual. I have been thinking and writing about, for years, the idea of caring for others, as individuals or in groups/organizations, trying to help in one way or another. But lately the question has reignited in me: where is the line between helping and enabling? The things, the issues, the people who linger and cling – and where I have wanted to help set them on their feet so they could run forward, they’ve instead dug in their heels. Am I blind in these cases, putting my own well-being into peril because of what I won’t see or let go of? And is asking the question a full circle back to the pettiness I am trying to avoid?