Existential Dread

Raven Bellefleur (photo by Trista McGovern and Glynnis Forsberg)

Picture a 22-year-old recent college graduate sitting in her room, drinking from her sustainable water bottle, eating her fair-trade, organic produce, and preparing for her first “big girl” job. The girl is me, and this is not an uncommon picture for middle-class girls my age. A lot of us are hard-working academics with a strong moral compass, which helps us to navigate the chaotic world.

While our missions and goals may vary, there is common ground across the majority of my generation. We are all exhausted from trying to balance education, work, and the doom of climate change and resulting social instability.

I find myself particularly exhausted by a battle between wanting to fix the system, and the understanding that I also need to survive in it. How do I balance making a living and trying to create institutional and systemic change in a way that builds a better world for future generations?

Sometimes it feels so impossible, dread-inducing, and draining, that I wonder whether my individual impact is worth the effort. No matter how many plastic straws I keep out of landfills, how many times I walk instead of drive, how many paper towels I save, or how much water I save by being vegan, the world is still crashing down around me at an alarming rate. The lists of companies, products, and brands that I should be boycotting for one reason or another is ever-expanding, making it difficult to purchase or consume anything without guilt or pause.

Every milestone I reach — graduating from college, moving out, getting a job — brings me closer to a dream that capitalism sold me, and that makes me question my priorities. Am I doing enough to create meaningful change in my environment, or am I just focusing on building a life for myself that ultimately only serves me?

At the end of a 40+-hour work week, I’m physically and emotionally spent, with little to show for my work except a paycheck. I feel compelled to allocate the energy I have left to volunteer work and activism, but deciding where to focus my efforts is an entirely different challenge.

The list of causes that desperately require time, money, and womanpower is expansive. Should I focus on politics, the environment, social reform, education, or gender and LGBTQ+ equality?

For every email list I join, and every petition I sign, only a fraction of those causes end up being something I can commit to. There are simply not enough hours in the day, or gas in my tank, to fuel my activism and make enough money to pay my bills. This all begs the question: how do I balance activism with making a living?

I don’t. That’s why I often slip into existential dread for hours at a time, fretting over my non-existent influence on the world.

I would give anything to be at a point where a 50/50 split between the two could exist — I’d even take 75/25 — but as a millennial, I simply don’t have the resources for that, and I worry that by the time I do, it’ll be too late. Climate change is irreversible. Politics are plagued with corruption and corporate interests.

In the meantime, I have to take each day at a time, and try to find the good in the little actions I take, with the hope that the ripple effect will carry my service forward and someday create the world I want to raise my children in.