Whether it’s while working towards a personal goal, aiming to improve the lives of others, or toiling for the health of planet earth, the fact is you are going to make some huge mistakes. Or perhaps it will be a bit less dramatic, and you’re going to make a series of small mistakes over and over. For example, this week I had to run to the grocery store to get soy milk. I forgot to bring my reusable bags, and only realized after I had waited in the massive social-distancing necessitated line-up outside the Metro.
Was I going to head back home to grab my bags (using gas, because I drove there), only to get back into the hour-long line again just to get some soy milk for my coffee? No. Instead, I bit the bullet and took the reusable bags to haul home my 8 cartons of soy milk (we drink a lot of coffee around here), and made a note to myself to put the reusable bags in the car for next time. But as I sit here writing this I realize that I ignored the note to myself, because my reusable bags are hanging on the door of my office, right in front of me, and are therefore not in the trunk of my car. I made a mistake, and I am presently on the path to making that same mistake again. And again. And again.
That was a pretty small example, but in a world where we are constantly being told that small changes can make a HUGE difference, minor mistakes like this can lead to a lot of self-criticism, and feelings of defeat.
When The Right Thing Becomes Less Clear
There are other instances where perhaps you intend to do the right thing, but what you thought was the right thing turned out to be the wrong thing. For example, say you decided to switch from cow’s milk to almond milk for the sake of the planet. But then your aunt or cousin or coworker shared an article like this one that called into question the ethics and sustainability of almond farming and almond milk production. You may feel defeated. You may ask yourself why you even bothered to try to make a positive change. And you may worry that the other choices you have made for the sake of sustainability or animal welfare are also problematic, or downright wrong.
But, the secret that so few activists and speakers and environmental advocates and writers are telling you is: It is completely okay to try to do the right thing and fail.Johanna Fraser
And maybe that is in fact the case. Maybe you have royally screwed something up. Maybe your reasoning has been completely off, or the information you have gathered is completely wrong. And this can also lead to significant self-criticism and feelings of defeat.
But, the secret that so few activists and speakers and environmental advocates and writers are telling you is: It is completely okay to try to do the right thing and fail.
The catch is that when you find out you’ve made the wrong choice, or you’ve messed something up you’ve got to have the strength, bravery, and willpower to change your mind, and make another choice, and to keep on trying.
This can be very difficult, in part because changing your mind is hard. In fact, holding a belief can have a similar impact on the brain as an addictive drug, and it is therefore a very natural psychological phenomena to remain rooted in your beliefs, even when faced with new, opposing, information. Psychologists call this behaviour dissonance reduction — basically, when we believe something and are faced with facts that contradict our beliefs, we take great strides to align the new information with our beliefs, or deny the new information altogether.
But the good news is that you have already made the choice to try to do better for the planet or the animal inhabitants thereof, so you have already demonstrated that you have the ability to overcome this psychological pitfall. However, another significant drawback to making ethical choices in contemporary society is that much of what we do is published quite publicly via social media channels like Instagram. Social censure and the threat of public humiliation are not new phenomena, but they have certainly taken on a new face in the Instagram age. If we make a decision to choose a certain lifestyle and broadcast that choice publicly, it can feel overwhelming and scary, and downright impossible to take that choice back, or admit that we were wrong. What will our followers think? What about the digitally mediated community of like-minded individuals into which you have now integrated? Will they still be your friends if you change your mind?
You may feel stressed, overwhelmed, lonely, frustrated or sad. But you are not defeated. It was worth it to try, and it is worth it to try again.Johanna Fraser
There is no easy answer to this except that when it comes to making a decision for the sake of the planet of the animals we share it with, sometimes we have to sacrifice our momentary well-being for the sake of the long term well-being of others. You might lose followers, or friends. You might inadvertently alienate people who remain firmly rooted in the belief system from which you are turning away. And you may feel stressed, overwhelmed, lonely, frustrated or sad. But you are not defeated. It was worth it to try, and it is worth it to try again.
And as a bonus, when you do something that you believe to be right, even if it is difficult, you are likely to benefit from the choice long term too. Research suggests that doing good deeds can have long term positive impacts on physical and mental well-being, and while making choices based solely on your own self-interest is a little ethically questionable, it is certainly a boon to know that you can get something out of it too.
So, whether you forgot your reusable grocery bag, chose the wrong milk replacement, or joined the wrong activist community, changing your mind, making a different choice, and moving forward is possible. And while it might feel scary or lonely now, some day, maybe even very soon, you will feel and see the benefits of that new choice on the world around you, and within yourself.