July 15th, 2010

Bruce, Caroline

Choosing Your Battles

It was 1990, and I was about halfway through my summer job. For the
duration of the summer, I was staying with this family here in Winnipeg,
and I had arranged to get my own phone line while I was there, so I
could have some privacy with the phone, go online (remember when you
used an analog modem for that?) and so on. Due to unforeseen events, I
lost my phoneline halfway through the summer, and I was livid. My dad
picked me up one evening to go out and spend the weekend with my
parents, and I went on and on about how unfairly I had been treated, how
it had cost me money, and how I should get my money back. My dad tried
to tell me to just let it go. I didn't. Finally, in exasperation, Dad
said, "Okay, do you want me to just give you that money then?" Even
though I still missed the point my dad was trying to drive home (that
would take another fifteen years or so), that question at least shamed
me into shutting up and (at least outwardly) letting it go.

For whatever reason, this concept of choosing one's own battles has come
hard for me. When the Internet first became a part of my life and I
started joining mailing lists, I always found it necessary to defend
myself whenever falsely accused, or whenever I thought I was
right and everyone else needed to know that I was right.

I've seen a lot of other people doing the same thing. They see someone
disagreeing with them, or some crackpot making an outrageous statement,
or maybe just someone disagreeing with them about something they feel
strongly about, and to them it becomes a question of honor. I've been
there, I've done that. I probably still do from time to time. What
happens, or at least this is my experience, is that you become gripped
with an overwhelming need for validation. I believe this, that, or the
other thing, and it is therefore vital that others see it my way. Hey,
isn't there a Beatles song in there somewhere? The result would be that
I'd get into fights with other people on mailing lists, I'd annoy a lot
of people who had to slog through all the rubbish, I'd infuriate list
owners, I probably wouldn't convince anyone of my point, and people
would respect me less. Is "being right" worth it? You get an adrenaline
rush for about ten seconds. But I'd rather have people's respect than an
adrenaline rush.

What my dad was trying so hard to teach me all those years ago was that
there are battles worth fighting, and there are battles worth leaving
alone. When the abortion debate came up shortly afterwards, I wanted to
go all out, righting letters about a woman's right to choose versus a
child's right to live, I was ready to go on protest marches, the works.
But my dad cautioned me against it. "Don't you care?" I asked him? "Of
course I care," Dad replied sincerely, "but this is going to go through
regardless, you can't stop it, I can't stop it, so what's the point of
expending all sorts of energy trying? Save your energy for the fight you
can win."

This is the man who broke all the rules to make sure that I would be
allowed to be educated in the mainstream school system, so I could spend
my childhood living with my family. I'm not arguing here about the
merits of mainstreaming versus state-run schools, but rather my point is
that this was a battle that he not only believe in, but he believed he
could make a difference, so he was willing and able to expend his energy
on that, because he hadn't wasted it fighting for a phone line for a
month, our trying to lie in front of a bulldozer that refused to stop.

So what do I do? Or at least, what do I try to do? When I feel the need
to get up in arms about something, I try to first ask myself if it's
worth it. Am I fighting for something that really matters, or am I
merely wasting all sorts of energy trying to keep a private phone line
for a month? If it is worth it, then can I make a difference? If not, is
there anything to be gained at all by my efforts, or will I just look
silly letting that bulldozer run straight over me? ("Mr. Dent ... have
you the faintest idea how much damage that bulldozer would suffer if I
just let it run straight over you?" "How much?" "None at all.")

If we weed out the pointless battles and the battles in futility, we
will find ourselves with much more energy to the battles that do matter,
and where we can make a difference.

Martin Luther King, Jr., understood this. Though it cost him his life,
he knew that he could make a difference, and what a difference he made!
He knew which battles to fight and how to fight them. The women in
Canada who gave women the right to vote understood this, as have
countless men and women, past and present, for countless causes. The
people who choose their battles ultimately wind up being the most
effective at the battles they choose.