One of the more cringeworthy episodes of “The Office” takes place at business school, where Regional Manager Michael Scott presents the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company to the class. After mansplaining basic business and economics using candy bars, Michael is hit with pointed questions about the future success of Dunder Mifflin in a competitive marketplace. His bravado shrinking, he goes on the defensive, offering platitudes instead of strategy: “David will always beat Goliath.” One student is unconvinced. “There are five Goliaths…Staples…OfficeMax…” he begins before Michael sharply cuts him off. “You know what else is facing five Goliaths? America. Al-Qaeda, global warming, sex predators… mercury poisoning. So, do we just give up?”
It’s textbook Michael Scott – managing only four “Goliaths” while missing the point of the exercise entirely. I don’t remember if I laughed or cringed – it’s possible I’ve done both on occasion, considering I’ve seen that episode multiple times. Reflecting years later, though, I’m neither amused nor horrified by Michael’s misguided monologue. I’m intrigued.
The writers probably wanted to highlight Michael’s narcissism and poor critical thinking, but his off-the-cuff “Goliaths” speak to something I’ve been struggling with lately. Michael’s characterization of our country’s greatest threats might be off – but by whose standards? America is facing far more than five Goliaths, as is our immediate environment and the global environment, and to try and prioritize or rank presents a real challenge. It’s almost economic in nature; we have limited emotional capital to tackle unlimited problems. How do we ensure our lives yield the best return when balancing the global Goliaths with our personal needs? If we want to impact the world, if we want to summon our inner David to dismantle these global Goliaths, where do we invest that capital?
A threat that only recently drew my attention is that of the mistreatment of Uyghurs in China. If you haven’t looked into this devastating story, you should. Investigative journalism, notably by the BBC, has revealed atrocious human rights abuses committed against innocent Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region. Reports and testimony conclude that Uyghurs suffer forced sterilizations, abortions, rape, child separation, and culture-stripping, all in the name of assimilation to Han Chinese culture. It’s difficult to fully corroborate; the authoritarian Chinese government is far from transparent, and countries with economic reliance on China are reluctant to label this genocide.
Each account of the Uyghurs broke my heart, particularly those from Uyghur women who escaped or otherwise exited the country, taking great risk to tell their traumatic stories. Every thread of my emotion began arming itself to go to battle for these people. This was it. This was the Goliath of the day. I wanted to drop everything and find the heaviest stone, the strongest slingshot. I was ready to sign petitions, to write lawmakers, to share on social media, to do whatever I needed to do help slay this beast.
As days went on, though, my attention diverted. A breaking news story, a random tweet, a call with relatives, and a chapter read, and suddenly this imminent Goliath had dissipated, giving way to the concerns of climate change, the sins of systemic racism. My personal agenda also interfered, as the personal Goliaths of self-care, family relationships, and friendships re-entered my view. Allocating all my emotional capital to saving the Uyghurs suddenly had high opportunity costs and better alternatives. What about our problems at home? Should I not tackle my community before shifting to global efforts? How strongly should I emphasize my own well-being and my relationships? My vision of prioritizing the giants was as erratic and noncommittal as Michael Scott’s. As Goliaths multiplied on the horizon, I stood idly, unmotivated, with a handful of empty slingshots. How are we to ever make progress?
It seems there’s no ideal point on the sliding scale of emotional currency. Every investment will come with opportunity cost. I’m craving a playbook for managing my emotions, maintaining relationships, and winning a victory for humanity. I want the proverbial supply-demand curve that shows how to optimize the economics of emotion. How do we ensure a swift ending to the Uyghur genocide in China, while also demanding that nobody in our communities go hungry? How do we also maintain emphasis on the threats of climate change, to leave a better future for the next generation, and systemic racism, to better understand the horrors of America’s past? And how do we alleviate the burden of emotional resources, so it doesn’t fracture our relationships, friendships, family bonds, and personal wellbeing? Emotional capital is limited; Goliaths are limitless. And it’s frustrating as hell.
When writing, I always try and reach some sort of conclusion, recommendations on observations on complex issues. But I’ve found this overly difficult. Prioritizing Goliaths and building arsenals of slingshots and stones offers no easy solution. I think back to a frazzled Michael Scott, though, more for what he asked at the end his Goliath monologue. “Do we just give up?”
This much we know: we cannot give up. And as much as the threat of ever-present Goliaths looms large, there are many people and organizations armed and up to the task. Perhaps we can draw on the symbolic Davids for inspiration. I’m moved by people, both in my life and in the public eye, who spend emotional currency wisely and for the greater good. I think of politicians, athletes and public figures who use their platforms to speak out on behalf of issues they feel passionate about. I think also of community leaders who, despite a smaller platform, tackle problems in the community with ferocity. Undoubtedly, even these icons struggle with the management of emotional capital, juggling Goliaths publicly and privately.
Even if we lack answers to this question, I hope to start a dialogue. Whether it’s genocide or climate change, or even an issue as local as homelessness, these giants don’t leave without a fight, and even if defeated, more will emerge to fill those voids. We’ll never exist in a world without Goliaths, but I’m hoping for a unified front in attacking them, where the communal shared vision – even the erratic Michael Scott – manages what’s most important and build the best battle strategy. I’m looking for balanced emotional economics, such that we balance personal upkeep with our ability to identify and bring change with the highest return on investment – whether genocide, inequality, or local politics. I want to prove the impulsive Michael Scott right about one thing, whether in Dunder Mifflin terms or global terms: “David will always beat Goliath.”