Throughout my time in college, I have met many people who want to make an “positive impact” on the world. I personally have no idea what that means anymore. What is impact? It seems like such an abstract concept. Impact. It is an idea without a definition that people strive for. Then, somewhere down the line, it struck me: impact is a synonym for power.
It’s weird because I also resided in the “impact” camp at one point. I wanted to go into international development because that seemed like the field in which I could do the most good for the world. I wanted to work at USAID or the World Bank or some NGO in some part of the world far from where I was born. I don’t remember when I no longer wanted to do these things. I think I was networking with some people who worked in international development in the summer coming into my senior year of college, and then I realized that working in international development won’t fulfill the sense of purposelessness I wanted it to fulfill.
The reality of that we feel powerless in this globalized world. Hundreds of years ago, when we would live in the same village our entire lives, we could shape the world around us. The only world we knew of is the village, and we contributed to the village in ways that was necessary for its survival. We could collect berries to feed our village, which would give us a sense of power. We could kill animals to make clothing, which gave us a sense of power. People relied on us, and we could exercise the power of God over animals and plants. In that world, we had the feeling that we had power because the world was so small.
It is quite different now. It doesn’t really matter if we were born at all. The population of the world is close to eight billion people now. If the world had one less person, it wouldn’t make that much of a difference. Collectively, we sum up to be humanity, which is everything. Individually, we are just a shadow of humanity — a mirror reflecting the conditions in which we were born into — an entity that does not need to exist at all. In a village, we could have been everything. In this world, we are nothing. The world continues to grow, technology continues to advance, and everything continues to function without us.
In War and Peace, Tolstoy discussed how we, as humans, like to attribute historical events to particular actors. In the Napoleonic Wars, we tend to think Napoleon as a catalyst for everything ranging from reclaiming France to mistakenly invading Russia in the winter, but we often ignore other forces of history that don’t fit into this simple narrative of a single individual dictating world events. We attribute major world events like the Indian Independence Movement to Gandhi, but we forget the historical context that catalyzed these players in the first place. It is easy to consider single actors as the catalyst for major historical events, but I consider them circumstantial more than anything.
The world continues to have movements regardless of whether we partake in it or not. This is a very structuralist position to take, and I generally consider myself a post-structuralist. Even if we lead a movement, we did not create the movement. We merely partake in it, and the movement labels us. People in history attempt to create a better world by making an “impact” on it. Collectively, that is what determines history. Individually, it does not matter if one individual partakes in it or not. The movement would have run its course regardless. That is the paradox we are presented with: We want to feel like we matter in the world, but the only way we can matter in the world is through our relationship with other people. We do not want to feel reliant on other people, which is why we want other people to rely on us.
We say that we want to have an impact on others, but what we actually want is to feel like we matter in a world that doesn’t really care about us. We could live or die — why does the world care? But we want it to care, which is why we convince ourselves that we want to help other people. It gives us a sense of power over others, which in turn gives us a sense of control. It is a coping mechanism to escape from the reality that our lives doesn’t really matter in this world, that we don’t have as much control over our circumstances as we want to have. We want it to matter — to derive a sense of control in a world that does not allow us any — and we are willing to do anything to convince ourselves that it does.
In high school debate, when the topic of ‘does truly selfless altruism actually exist’ came up, I said it didn’t. At the time, I didn’t have any philosophical basis to ground my thoughts; it was just an intuitive thought I tried to back with logic. At the time, I boiled all altruism down to “feeling good”. Now, with a little more philosophy under my belt, I think the motivations for altruism is actually a derivative of Nietzsche’s will to power. Altruism doesn’t exist. It is just an act to make us feel more powerful when we feel powerless in this world. Through altruism, we exert power over other people. For a temporary moment, they become reliant on us, and that sense of purpose derived through reliance is a high that we return to again and again.
It is truly a contemporary phenomena to understand the extent of the complexities in the world. I suspect that this sense of awe or dejection towards the immensity of the world will only grow in our popular consciousness. We will feel more powerless as we become more familiar to the world that exists outside of our immediate awareness. But why does it matter if you make an impact on the world or not? I think I prefer to fade into nothingness.