Refusing battles

“Pick your battles” is probably the most important thing I’ve learnt as a journalist. A lot of it is probably due to my firm belief that science has always been political, and getting people to see this has often left me grappling with difficult questions in a variety of areas, which in turn required my engagement with a diverse multiplicity of people, ideas, and problems. In the course of working like this as a journalist for a decade, I got to contribute to as well as publish some wonderful work. But it also took me a decade to be honest to myself and admit that I was going about all this the wrong way.

Constantly questioning myself and my privileges as I began my journalistic career had, over time, pressed into my skull the idea that, given the resources at my disposal, I could always do more than I was doing at any moment. So I took on more work, and more kinds of work, even as I began to interpret the resulting stress as an inability to be as efficient as necessary. By mid-2022, this misguided conflation had exacted a heavy toll on my body. My doctor immediately ordered a change in gears and my therapist helped me figure out that I hadn’t picked my battles. But I soon realised that the bigger mistake I’d made was underestimating how difficult declining all the other battles would be.

This is FOMO but it’s also more than that. One way to define caste, class, and gender privilege in India (the benefits of all of which I enjoy, by the way) is to say that more privileged people can afford to fight more battles than less privileged people. Privileged bodies can also tolerate more harm (accidental, not deliberate) because they can afford good doctors and healthier living environments. But this sort of thinking misses the point, I realised later, because it overlooks sustainability. Performing 100 units of work and then fizzling out after five years is not better than performing eight units of work per year for many years. The latter is also advantageous because spending more time doing something allows you to persist – and enhance your credentials – in that community, establish more as well as stronger relationships, and mentor people. These things in turn bring advantages that working by oneself never will.

You probably already know all of this, but I want to make sure you know one more thing: not trivialising the allure of the battles you’ve decided to overlook. This problem is more than FOMO because FOMO implies a temptation to do something. But when you’re a privileged person and you’ve decided that you’re not going to fight some battle, you also need to deal with the allegations – both self-inflicted and inflicted by others, especially by people in your own circles and sometimes publicly – of having abdicated your privileges. Instead of not giving in to the resulting temptation, as with FOMO, you need to not give in to the resulting shame.

When I first experienced it, my self-esteem plummeted. I found myself clutching at straws when, for example, someone tagged me on Twitter demanding to know why I couldn’t do something about a news report with average writing, put out by the publication I worked at (along with hundreds of other journalists). The old me would have sprung into action, messaging the relevant editors, going into why XYZ is problematic, and becoming entangled in increasingly vexed follow-ups. But I’ve found that the shame eventually calcifies into a kind of courage, one that allows me today to say – after a few deep breaths – that while I’m sure XYZ is an important problem, I’m not going to pay much attention to it.