Privilege and Guilt

By Michelle Austreich

Sometimes I read the news until I feel fully plagued with anxiety and am on the verge of a panic attack, which is when I promptly decide that my quota is fulfilled for the day. A few years ago, I kept up with trends in the news and saw what other people shared, but to me it ended there - just scrolling through social media. Now, I find that I am often unable to tear myself away from current events out of a new sort of gnawing guilt. The current pandemic has swiftly outlined and further exacerbated the deep-rooted inequality of our world, and I find myself struggling to find a place. I am aware of my privilege in being able to attend college to further my education, when for so many it is out of reach. Right now, I do not have to worry that my parents will lose their jobs and therefore render us completely without an income. This, of course, is due to the sacrifices and pain that my family experienced decades ago in order to immigrate to America, and without them uprooting their life to venture into an unknown world, I would not even exist. I am forever indebted to those who came before me and fought for a better life; my question now is where do I fit in? 

This guilt that I feel is oftentimes overwhelming, as I ask myself: why me? Why do I get to spend this time in the comfort of my own home complaining that I cannot see friends or get coffee, when some have lost their homes or even their lives? Even before this pandemic began, I would lose myself in a whirlwind of questions. Do I deserve this? What did I do to have this life? Why do I get the privileges that so many do not? Once all my inquiries are laid out, I reach a fork in the road. Half of me begins to sweat at the brow, as I convince myself that there is so much more that I could do. Why have I not created something yet that will positively impact lives? What can I do to help? This eventually ends with more questions than answers and I end up donating to a couple of charities and feeling like I have done “enough” to at least move on with my day. The other half of me begins to get angry. She thinks that I waste my time and energy thinking of all the things that others do not have, which in turn is a waste of what I do have. I should be grateful for all of these opportunities, and I need to stop throwing away my time reflecting upon all the injustice in the world, because then I’ll never do anything for myself. The war between two halves of myself seems to reach a stalemate here, as both sides unsuccessfully attempt to gain the upper hand. 

These schools of thought both have points that I agree with, and yet it’s the nexus that is fuzzy. Yes, I care about people. Maybe sometimes I can even care too much, if there is such a thing. Does that make me worse off? Is it really a waste of time to sometimes wonder about a stranger’s wellbeing? My problem lies in shifting the scale between the guilt and the appreciation, as I do not know how to fuse the oxymoron that is being proud of myself while simultaneously wondering why I am a failure. I beat myself up for events that I cannot control and then I ask myself why I haven’t done more - as if asking myself to be more productive is the overlooked cure to worldwide turmoil. 

Why do some people care so much and others not at all? How can some people live their lives completely focused on themselves and not bat an eye at the world around them? Who decides that this is how our system functions? I can step away from things that make me upset, but for many, the flashy headlines represent their reality. I don’t have the answers that I’d like, but I think the power stems from coming to terms with the fact that I never will. I’ve been trying to look at the things I take for granted that are integral to the existence of others. For example, my race and sexuality are things that I give little thought to because they are “normal” and do not really impact me in any way. I recently read that this can be called “ordinary privilege”, a term coined by Dolly Chugh to describe the aspects of a person that blend in with the norms around them, which means that they can live a whole day without even remembering these things. The fact that I live in a house, have a loving family, and have financial security is all “normal” as well, as I can live my life without acknowledging any of it. There is immense privilege in my situation, and there’s no other way to paint it. Given this, I think it is my responsibility to venture out of the comfort of the bubble that is my world. 

I want to try to put this feeling toward something that doesn’t boil down to beating myself up for merely existing. Being mad at myself because of where I was born is almost like biting the hand that feeds me, in a way I do not desire to explore. While I do not feel like I could force myself to ignore the news cycle, I can focus on sources that are less alarmist, and at least make an attempt to not purposefully induce further anxiety upon myself. I can also contribute in a way that feels real and doesn’t just base itself on sharing something on social media. While retweeting and sharing things all over the internet is important for acquiring information in the first place, it does not stand as a replacement for tangible action. If you, like myself, are itching to do more in some way, make it happen in whatever real-life form that may be. Help your neighbors, call your senators, sign petitions, yell from the rooftops - just do whatever it is that makes you feel like you’re doing more than allowing your negativity to consume you. Use your privilege to speak out and call attention to issues that matter. Taking a break from the news and the ever-updating headlines is also okay, as your sole purpose in life is not to mindlessly absorb whatever flashes across your screen. 

It is okay to feel grief about the loss of connection we are all experiencing, and it is okay to worry about how our future will be impacted. The fact that no one knows what “normal” even means anymore is challenging, and we cannot keep running ourselves into the ground based on standards that no longer apply. Feeling constantly guilty because I am not risking my life like so many have been doing is allowed, but it is important to know and accept my limits. Translating guilt into gratitude is daunting, but necessary. If I spent the same amount of time channeling my energy into positive action as I have already wasted on being angry at myself, so many would be better for it. I guess the challenge comes with balance, yet again. If you needed the reminder: you are allowed to feel overwhelmed, hopeless, and truly exhausted by the state of the world. You’re only human after all. In the meantime, I’m trying to choose kindness, toward myself and others, as we all try to navigate the fierce uncertainty of a rapidly changing world.