I don’t want to change the world. I’m not trying. I’m not that powerful, but I can effect some change. I constantly influence the lives of other people, whether or not purposely, and there is much that I can do to determine how that influence operates.
First — and most importantly — I can be polite. I can recognize that sometimes folks have bad days, that their behavior most likely has little to do with me and that I am merely the beneficiary of anger that has other causes. If I permit them to upset me, I give them control over my life. I will be dealing with the upset long after they have left the scene and forgotten about it. Is it not better to simply be pleased that I don’t have to live inside their heads, and let it go? Can I feel compassion, and wish better for them instead of cursing them? Manners are the lubricants of society. If other’s lives are dry and filled with friction, must I allow it to effect me? We each have our own reality. Can I simply be glad that mine is more pleasant?
If someone is in pain, perhaps I can help in some way and make things a bit less confusing and frightening for them, for a little while. I can keep this blog, and perhaps help someone in the direction of a path or a decision that is right for them. I can try to live more skillfully, and perhaps encourage someone else by my example. (At the very least, it will make my passage through the world a bit smoother.) I can try to think clearly, and avoid confusing others with unskillful speech. I can avoid spreading untruths, and unskillful ways of thinking. I can find work that satisfies, and that improves the world a tiny bit (or at least that does it no harm), rather than hastening its decline.
I may not be able to right a wrong, but I can bear witness. Much unpleasantness is allowed to happen by people who refuse to watch, and who pretend that such things have nothing to do with them. If no one watches — if no one speaks — how will the world know? Stephen L. Carter, a Yale Law Professor and prolific author, wrote:
…integrity [is] a virtue that demands of each and every one of us that we discern what is right and what is wrong; that we act on what we have discerned, even at personal cost; and that we say openly that we are acting on our understanding of right from wrong.
Am I willing to do that? Can I step in when an unreasonable customer is berating the checkout girl at the market? If I can’t, can I let her know with a smile, when it’s my turn, that someone respects her and the job she is doing? Can I smile in a friendly way at the old lady in the same line who is digging in her purse for the exact change? Can I recognize that she is me, a few years down the road, and help her know that growing old — surely difficult enough in practical ways — is nothing to be ashamed of? If I’m unwilling or unable to stand on protest lines, can I at least write the letters that might influence others? (Real letters, sent by snail mail? The ones they pay attention to?) Do I exercise my power to effect changes by voting? Do I avoid creating — or worsening — other drivers’ anger on the highway and, in that way, lessen the chance of an accident that I may never know about? Can I avoid criticizing a family member — accept the things I cannot change — so as not to take the edge off their day?
In those ways, I can make the world a slightly better place.
The reality of life is that we can be most effective on a small scale. I can do all of the above, and more, if I am determined to make the differences that I am able to make, and if I do what I can — in little ways. I don’t have to blow the horn in traffic. I don’t have to show my impatience in line. (In fact, I might decide to take a look at the reasons for those impulses at some point.) The thing is, if I wait for the big chance I’ll waste a lot of time, good intentions, and probably end up doing very little. As the Irish — those wonderful practical philosophers — say, “You can’t get a garden ready for planting by turning it over in your mind.”
How does your garden grow?