When I was growing up I was told I could be anything I wanted to be if I worked hard enough. The examples I was given at school and church were daunting. Heroes who did no wrong and martyrs who suffered for a cause without wavering. The media showed me examples too. People who were celebrities because of their talent for acting or playing games or for their appearance alone. All these people seemed larger than life.
I didn’t want fame but I did want to accomplish important things. I wanted to find the source of sorrow, injustice, and suffering so that it could be alleviated. The urge to do this was constantly with me and often overpowering. When I was very small I wanted to bring peace to every caged puppy or crying baby I encountered. I couldn’t, although I did absorb the misery I perceived, turning it into questions that the adults around me couldn’t answer. As I approached my teen years I searched for my own answers. I learned all I could about the world’s wrongs, hoping to find out why greed and cruelty happened. I committed myself to do something important. An ordinary life that did nothing to turn the world around seemed unthinkable. Whatever I did, it had to be big. My time on earth had to make a difference.
My quest to understand all that was wrong turned me in the opposite direction from hope. It showed me the worst of humanity. Slowly I came to realize that building on what’s positive brings greater possibilities into being. My days as an adult have proceeded without accomplishing anything Big. But I’ve come to think it’s the countless small actions, even thoughts, that truly have significance. We’re faced with these choices every day.
- Do I wave to my neighbor, the one who condemns me?
- Do I give the cash in my pocket to a street person or do I look away?
- Will I cook tonight’s dinner from scratch, perhaps making enough to bring some to a friend recovering from an illness?
- Do I turn from what I’m doing to truly look and listen when someone talks to me?
- Should I go to yet another activist meeting, surrounded by often despairing people? Would it be better to write an article about the issue or simply to focus my energy on new possibilities that make the issue obsolete?
- Do I fritter away time on tasks that feel like “shoulds” even though time seems to be slipping away like escalator stairs?
- Do I read too much, blotting out my own experiences, or is it fine to indulge this obsession of mine?
- Do I believe that humanity is becoming more aware, more kindly, more open?
- And because my answer is yes, do I live that yes?
None of these are major challenges, but how I answer such questions is how I live my life. They have to do with how I conduct myself and how I see the world around me. The questions aren’t clear-cut, so it’s not always easy to discern where on the scale my answer falls. Leaning toward loving attention or apathy? Joy or bitterness? Eagerness or weary resignation? Considering larger implications or thinking only of my whims?
I’m undisciplined and prone to stubbornness, so I make plenty of choices that wouldn’t pass an ethical stink test. Still, each one matters.
We’ve been taught that only Big people with “real” influence make a difference. That makes us feel powerless. Chances are, that’s what Big money and those who control it want us to think. If we feel powerless we give up before we try. After all, the advertisements surrounding us insist our major choices have to do with what we wear, the cell phones we use, the cars we drive, the vacations we take. Oh and having teeth so white they shine like LED lights each time we smile. Larger social, environmental, and political concerns may keep us in a state of anxiety but are nothing we have any control over. Or so we’re told. Hush about unemployment and income disparity. Hush about erosion of Constitutional rights, climate change, drone strikes. Just stimulate the economy like a nice shopper. As soon as the Big experts are done distracting us with their divisiveness they’ll handle it.
That’s true only if we agree with the idea that Big matters. Because all around us is the present, which appears little and inconsequential, but isn’t. Acting in the present may mean choosing to slow down, to meet our neighbors, to take a deep breath and be grateful, to speak up against a wrong, to step outside and look at the sky, to turn off all devices and spend time with someone, to eat while savoring each bite, to do something difficult with no assured outcome. It doesn’t mean ignoring injustice or wastefulness.
A response in the present is corrective. Even fixing the largest problems requires small steps. Incremental progress, both in attitude and action, is behind great social and environmental change. In fact, the idea that only Big change can fix problems is part of the problem. When bureaucrats or corporations institute top-down changes they often make situations worse. Real progress happens when the same people who are affected by a problem take power over the choices and act on that power. This rises from small choices, values elevated to action.
We’ve all heard of the butterfly effect. A butterfly flaps its wings in the rainforest, as a consequence weeks later there are tornadoes in Texas instead of clear skies. The effect, coined by mathematician Edward Lorenz, basically says that small change in one place can result in large differences later. It’s a fascinating look at chaos theory, but it also means nothing we or anyone (even a butterfly) does is without consequence. Just as a butterfly in Brazil has no way of knowing it may affect weather patterns a continent away, we often can’t predict the consequences of our choices let alone understand the long term impact. Our choices are those butterfly wings. Who I am today might be a disappointment to the determined child I once was, but I know now that worthwhile doesn’t have to mean big. How I fill a day is how I fill a life.