How can I live my life without feeling guilty?
I always think about the millions struggling in their lives due to famine, poverty, war, etc. … I try to do what I can to help through donations, but I feel that this is not enough, and I’m often left feeling guilty for enjoying little pleasures in my life. So my question is: How can I live my life without feeling guilty?
I want so badly to say “it’s okay” and to offer a soft place for you to land in this answer; but the truth is, I couldn’t in good conscience alleviate your guilt. You’re well aware of the privileges you have, and the guilt is asking you to acknowledge those privileges. Maybe the guilt is asking you to do something about your privilege. The answer is not to drown out the things that make you feel guilty, but instead to carry those things with you, letting them propel you forward without letting them pull you under.
It’s so easy to look at the world’s problems and say “I’m only one person, I can’t make a difference” and shrink away to eat potato chips in sadness. But that’s the thing. If we look at every problem, all at once, it can stop us from making any progress at all.
So here’s what I’d do: Scale down the problems and face them in your community in addition to donating and raising awareness around global issues. If you’re heartbroken by famines across the world, look for ways to fight food insecurity in your city and neighborhood. If you’re worried about people experiencing poverty and human rights violations of refugees, consider your unhoused neighbors. Vote for local city council members who have compassionate and sustainable solutions for homelessness and hunger in your community. If there are no candidates doing that, become the candidate you want to see, or ask someone you know to run for office. Voting, and being a vocal part of change, is a great step in alleviating some of these pains.
But voting isn’t the only path forward—it’s only a single step in a single direction. Governments are often not run in the best interests of all people, so you’ll have to step outside of that structure to continue making change. Get money into the hands of disenfranchised people by supporting marginalized business owners. Pay artists and educators whose work you enjoy online, and continue to share your wealth with organizations you care about. If your guilt is calling you to do better and learn more, I encourage you to rise to the occasion.
It’s okay to focus your energy and efforts on one thing at a time; in fact, that’s why community is so important. Everyone has skills that suit different types of needs. Maybe your voice is strongest when it comes to racial and gender equality, or environmental activism, or fighting food insecurity. If your skills lie in supporting people, support those who are adept at addressing the problems you care about most. There is a place for you in the revolution, and no work is insignificant. You do not have to do all of this alone.
Start at the very heart of things—your own heart. Are you practicing kindness and non-judgment? Are you evaluating your own biases and actively breaking them down? Even if it doesn’t solve global poverty, a kind word to a stranger can make a world of difference for that individual. Curiosity about the world around you can also help you exercise your compassion and empathy—keep learning and inviting new perspectives.
Finally, to address the question of whether you can enjoy yourself at all: I say yes, but I invite you to consider the impact. Allowing yourself the happiness you deserve doesn’t (and shouldn’t) require someone else’s pain.
Perhaps instead of Starbucks, you purchase coffee from a Fair Trade Black-owned roastery. Perhaps instead of scrolling Twitter in the morning, you subscribe to Substacks or Patreons and pay journalists and educators directly for their work. Call or email your favorite brands to inquire about their labor ethics or environmental policies, ask them to do better, and don’t purchase until they do. Hold yourself accountable for the things in your control. There are plenty of free and low-cost shifts you can make, too, depending on your financial resources.
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed, and it’s okay to take incremental steps. But even a small step forward is one in the right direction, and it can build momentum for the larger steps down the road. If you want to live without feeling guilty, become a proactive part of the change. I’ll join you.
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Emily Torres is the Managing Editor at The Good Trade. She’s a Los Angeles transplant who was born and raised in Indiana, where she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her reading or writing, caring for her rabbits, or practicing at the yoga studio. Say hi on Instagram!