Ask Zen Dog

“What happens to your donations”

Zen Dog Columns

Why Bother

Q: I am growing increasingly alarmed about the state of the environment, and I feel increasingly powerless. From climate change to toxic bioaccumulation, from mass transportation to run-away technology, from poverty to corruption, the problems we face are all systemic and global. Nothing an individual can do will make any difference to these trends. My influence -- good or bad -- is marginal, and as I get older I anticipate helplessly witnessing the inevitable decline. Why should I deprive myself and change my life of conventional excess consumption, when there will be no measurable benefit to myself or the world?


R: You appear to have a clear analysis of the impending situation. You’d think that seeing this so clearly would be enough to move you to make changes to your “life of conventional excess”. Yet you observe that for you clarity is not enough. You want to help yourself and the world, but you see that your impact in it is miniscule, rendering you anonymous to history and impotent to the future. Feeling karmically ineffectual, you ask whether you are not morally exempt.

But however small an individual's contribution might be, it is greater than zero. Respecting this means that you need to be able in the end to say, without pretense, that you did what you could. Mindfulness in the deed, and the quality of intentionality involved, is more causally significant than calculations of possible outcomes. Allowing personal despair to serve as a validation of behaviour encourages one to be deceived by causation. Too much focus on the outcome at the expense of the immediate is unwise. We ought not act in order to accumulate good karma, nor withhold action till desired results are certain.  What we actually do matters more than what we think or what we say.

Anonymity is painful, but it has its uses. It takes the self out of the picture. View your anonymity as the ideal condition to investigate selflessness. Anonymity helps to clarify intentions. It isolates and lays bare to our scrutiny the intrinsic reasons for our action. Thus it affords mindfulness. Conscious anonymity is a kind of karma yoga, a practice of abandoning the fruits of one’s actions. The opposite of moral exemption, it fosters moral presence. It opens up a moment of non-comparative mind. Anonymity is the perfect refuge.