When I was an undergrad in college, I read a book that included the following statement:
“We make our lives most meaningful when we connect ourselves with some really important causes or issues and we contribute to them. So we feel that because we live, something has gotten a little better than it would otherwise; we have contributed in however small a way to making the world a better place.”
That’s by Peter Singer, and it has probably been the single-most influential guiding principle in my career. That, and: “life’s always easier when someone is in your corner.” That one’s not from a famous author, though. It’s from my Dad.
This is a simple statement to understand, but not necessarily as simple to build a career and life around. Dedicating one’s self to causes or issues is complex to say the least. First of all, how can we be sure the causes and issues we have chosen are the most important ones?
Second, being committed to social justice, human rights, and efforts aimed at increasing the well-being of others can mean consistently going against the grain of society, having few tangible victories, navigating through ambiguity with no road map, leaning into personal growth, and building authentic (not just transactional) relationships with others. Most people, I think, choose not to go this route, and I can see why.
After bouncing around a few nonprofit jobs (all at organizations I have immense admiration for), I have been with Evergreen Health for over three years now. Evergreen Health was founded over thirty years ago as AIDS Community Services and now provides several targeted programs – chronic illness support, HIV care and prevention, Hepatitis C care and prevention, LGBTQ services, sexual health services, and services for people who use drugs. I work primarily with the latter in our Harm Reduction Center.
It’s a population that has been extremely stigmatized by our society and that stigma has resulted in people having very little access to healthcare. People are dying by the hundreds and thousands in our communities across the US due to drug overdoses, and there is a great deal of work to be done in order to implement effective responses.
The work can be difficult, but also fulfilling- sometimes my heart literally feels so full that it could burst. And I think that’s what Peter Singer is talking about in the excerpt I quoted earlier. He goes on to say “It’s hard to find anything more meaningful than doing that, than reducing the amount of unnecessary pain and suffering that there has been in this world and making the world a little bit better for all of the beings that are sharing it with us.”
Here’s my advice: Early in your career, find something to commit some of your energy to that makes the world a better place. Even if it’s not what you are doing from 9-5. Decreasing the amount of pain and suffering in this world is worth your time and you will never regret it.