“How is the world?”

That’s the question former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was asked recently during an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Stewart asked Annan if—on the “Kofi Annan Scale”—we were closer to having a peaceful world or needing to run for our lives.

“Closer to run,” answered Annan.

As a mom of one, trying to conceive a second child, his answer made me ill.

We all know the world is a mess. Kofi Annan is just another in an endless line of canaries whose warnings go unheeded, lost in the PR spin of corporations and governments bent on profit. In the face of such a bleak future, what can parents do to make the world a better—or less awful—place, and alleviate the guilt of bringing our kids into this chaos?

Dr. Jane Goodall, at a lecture in Victoria last year, took questions from the audience. One person after another asked Goodall how she managed to continue her work for all these years without getting overwhelmed or depressed. Her answers varied as she tackled versions of the same question. One of them, however, stuck with me.

I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially she said that there are so many problems in the world that we can easily become paralyzed. The key, for her, was choosing a cause—chimpanzees—and making them her focus. She felt that if she chose her cause, someone else would choose another, and that way we wouldn’t be running ourselves ragged trying to fix it all.

This strategy makes a lot of sense to me. It isn’t always feasible—for instance if your child needs to sell wrapping paper to raise money for their school while you’re focused on climate change—but overall it does help ease the load. And as moms and dads, anything we can do to unburden ourselves while continuing to be good parents and human beings is a welcome relief.

I used to volunteer with a charity that rescues abandoned and neglected cats and dogs. I stepped away from that position when I was gearing up to have my son. After he was born, I noticed how many of his clothes, toys, and books were covered with emblems, drawings, and artwork depicting endangered animals. I know there will be cats and dogs when my son is my age, but will there be elephants and tigers? That’s when endangered species became my focus.

How is my focus coming along? It needs to be refined. For now, a lot of it involves saying no to things. Do I want to come back to the animal rescue? They really, really need volunteers. Can I become a monthly donor for Amnesty International? And UNICEF? And all the other charities that have sent me letters, come to my door, or stopped me in the street? No. No. No. No. Saying yes selectively can be a very powerful and empowering option. When you stay focused on one area it’s easier to be informed, to find others who share your passion and—most importantly—to be able to witness the positive changes that have been made. If you’re involved in a hundred causes it’s nearly impossible to track all of the successes, and without those, it all starts to feel futile.

Failures will also become more evident and likely hit a lot harder when your activist eggs are mostly in one basket. That’s where the knowledge and contacts you’ve developed come into play and enable you to rebound with an even better approach the next time around. You’re no longer bouncing around from one ray of hope to another—you’re progressing toward a measurable impact.
For those who are just too overwhelmed by the multitude of tasks required to simply keep your kids/partner/parents alive to even consider committing yourself to getting really involved in a cause, don’t feel guilty! There are still lots of little ways to chip away at the world’s problems. Send a quick email to your MP/MLA/mayor about the issue you care about. Ensure the stuff you buy is in line with your cause or values. Sign that petition on Facebook—anything is better than nothing. If we won’t fight for our kids’ future, who will?

After his appearance on The Daily Show, Kofi Annan was interviewed by The Globe and Mail. Despite his concern for the state of our world, he hasn’t given up on it. He is adamant that “we all have a responsibility to try and make it a little better for our children and our grandchildren.” And we all do, in good measure.

Erin Skillen is a mom and a TV producer in Victoria.