Day Two: Premature Civaculation

Today, when I woke up, I had the image of an oyster in my mind.

I had no idea why – this is not what usually rouses me from slumber – but then I thought about it more. I mulled on the oyster (ooh, that sounds delicious. Moving on.) Considering the oyster, I pictured a bit of grit rubbing, irritating, scratching smooth flesh. I realized that there was a little black seed in some crevice of my mind – the residue of a dream I couldn’t remember – that was bothering me. Rubbing, irritating, scratching. I hoped that if I waited long enough (still in bed, of course) the friction would create a pearl. Some gem of insight that would have emerged from my dream, something real I could process. At the moment it just felt like mental chaffing. I was chewing on something, ruminating on it in my sleep, and upon waking I couldn’t quite put my finger on what this blacksomething was – just that it was a bother.

My attempts at rousing the grit from my deep subconscious having proved a dismal failure, I grumbled my way out of duvet paradise, sat down all crumbly-eyed at my computer, and checked Google News, the BBC homepage, and Facebook. These form the trifecta of online news for me at the moment, which I realize makes my information-gathering on par with that of a precocious thirteen year old’s. I could lie and say I read all the other publications I know I should, but honesty is key here, and this is something that I definitely want to improve through this project. An undertaking for another morning, when my brain is less raw.

On Facebook, I saw a colleague had posted this article in the New York Daily News about residents of public housing who are still without power after Sandy- meaning they are also without heat, toilets, and water. They’re largely invalids and the elderly living in poverty, which makes it that much worse.

I was so horrified reading this, so I shared it on Facebook, hoping that letting others see it, someone would do something. But then I realized that nobody would probably do anything. And so I thought to myself, “What could I do?”

For some reason, the idea of creating a petition occurred to me. If I could get hundreds of signatures, then John Rhea – who I discovered to be the Chair of the NY Housing Association, upon further googlication, obviously I had no idea who he was beforehand – might put the heat under those who are responsible for turning the heat on.

So I went to and created a petition, which I then shared with a few folks on Facebook, and posted to my timeline. Let the downpour of civic engagement begin!

More like an outpouring of embarrassment on my part.

I realized when I clicked “share” that it posted about 27 times to my news feed, which must have been hugely irritating to all my friends & acquaintances – the very ones I was trying to court.

I also realized that I misunderstood a function on the petition itself, and now every time a signature was received it would send a noisy announcement to a small select group of people to whom I had thought I was sending a personal plea.

I’m also afraid it’s sent an email to anyone I’ve ever met, like LinkedIn does when, like an overzealous drunken facebook stalker, it hacks into your email and invites everyone to connect with you against your  (and their) will.

Finally, after this exchange with my aunt on FB in response to the petition link, I’m reconsidering the entire thing. Perhaps this is the same as when folks scapegoat teachers for students’ problems – was I unfairly chastising and holding accountable the very folks who were working the hardest for problems that they couldn’t do a thing about? Was this civil-servant-on-civil-servant crime?

I was very proud of myself when I started this morning. I was thinking “my God, how I’ve grown in such a short time! Whereas before I would have just read an article and felt impotent and sad, now I am making change happen in the world! I’m taking action, rallying the troops, informed others, engaging!” But instead,  I just feel like I had a premature civaculation.

I have good intentions. I have good ideas. But how do I direct them? There’s of course the nagging concept of doing one thing extremely well, or being mediocre at many things. Of being a specialist or a generalist. I certainly fall into the camp of the latter, but I would like to learn more about living in the ashram of the former.

Someone I just met told me about the Center for Progressive Leadership, which sounds incredibly interesting to me. Perhaps doing something like that would teach me how to focus my energy, instead of whirring about like a well-intentioned Tazmanian Devil.

Thing to mull on: what is my focus?

A particular issue?

A particular demographic?

A particular geographical area?

And how does one make this choice?

What do you think – how do you decide to engage, or not engage? How do you focus and filter your own civic actions?

I’m still not sure what that cerebral grit was that I woke up with, but I definitely feel more like I’m left with a whole bunch o’ pony bead than a pearl at this point.


4 thoughts on “Day Two: Premature Civaculation

  1. Finding out where to focus is a MAJOR dilemma. I find that part the most overwhelming. There are so many good causes out there – how in the world does one manage to pick THE MOST IMPORTANT one?! When I started residency I thought that my hot button issue would be childhood obesity. While, of course, this is a very worthy cause, it didn’t end up being the one that made me feel. It made me whine. It made me judgmental. It turned me into the kind of person who complains without doing anything. I stumbled on an issue this year that I didn’t really even know what an issue – early childhood literacy. I know we’ve talked about it a lot but it was like a light turned on and all of a sudden I knew that this was what I wanted to work on. The same thing happened by accident in college when I discovered that I wanted to be a doctor. So my advice is to investigate lots of things – go to lectures, read new books. You might stumble on something you didn’t even know existed but with spark inside you the passion to move forward with it.

    • Ellie – I agree that figuring out your personal “hot button issue” is beyond complicated. Can you say more about how you knew the light went on for you about childhood literacy? Was it a fast or slow process? What was it like to distance yourself from the idea that you weren’t actually going to focus on childhood obesity? How did you know that you were on a new path, as opposed to just toying with the idea?

      One thing this also makes me think about it the role of PASSION. I feel like this is one of those words that gets tossed around a lot, like PURPOSE and BALANCE and DESERVE. I kind of hate these words, but use them all the time as well. We all know folks who lack passion – who are good at things but aren’t driven by any real connection and zest for a particular activity or issue.

      But what about folks who are overly passionate? Whose passion can’t find just one thing upon which to light? I feel like that sometimes – if it isn’t just that there are so many importnat things to choose from, but that I care deeply about so many of them, how do you choose one without feeling like King Solomon?

      Also, something I’ve been thinking about a good deal – what about when anger is mistaken for passion? For example, I felt angry about the conditions in which my students lived when I was a teacher. This made me feel I was passionate about helping urban youth and working to eradicate the social/emotional impacts of poverty on young people. Now I am questioning whether this is truly a PASSION, or perhaps just something I feel angry and upset about? How do you define a PASSION, I suppose, is what I’m asking?

  2. You know, sad to say, but I generally tend to not hold internet petitions in high regard–something about the ease of just anonymously signing your name online just doesn’t feel like real action to me (which I’m sure you realized!). I’m also doubtful as to their ability to change anything: who are you really petitioning? Why them? Can they truly help?

    Obviously this is no attack against you, just something I’ve realized as I’ve grown along with the internet.

    I think it’s important to avoid slacktivism of any kind. You know what I’m talking about: the KONY 2012 video, posting pictures of starving children in Africa on Facebook, and yes, signing internet petitions. It’s nice to think that these types of things actually do something, but unfortunately, only actual actions will. I’ve never been a fan of just raising awareness (Susan G. Komen foundation, I’m looking at you). I think it’s important to also set an example of how to start solving a problem.

    Sadly, focusing on one issue can be really difficult, but worthwhile for really making a change. Is there anything you feel particularly strongly about? Anything not getting enough attention? There’s so many causes that do get a lot of attention that many others are ignored; I’m always a proponent of helping out those who otherwise wouldn’t get the help.

    I’m sure you’ll figure it out just fine, though–and I’m sure I’d definitely be on board!

    • Stacey – I’m really fascinated by question your comment is making me think about. What defines an “actual action”? I agree . I read this article in the Times a few weeks ago about etiquette in the age of texting, and basically how when we remove the face-to-face confrontation from our interactions, it opens the floodgates for us to be inconsiderate assholes – it also makes it possible for us to be well-intentioned, without having to put our pants on or leave the house.

      In your experience, what separates actual and slactivistic actions? What separates just awareness-building from setting an example and starting to truly chip away at a problem? As your college experience has been bookended by the last two presidential elections, I’m particularly interested in what “doing” looks like to you. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

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