I was driving across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco recently with a colleague who said what so many of us have said in recent years: “It seems like the world is falling apart.”
What seemed most threatening to him was the state of affairs in Russia — Putin, in particular. Others have pointed to warfare across the Mideast. Others the polarization in our own country, the justified lack of trust in government, the dumb decisions being made in the interest of maximizing corporate profits, the dubious state of education, growing economic inequality, health care, or climate change and all that ushers in.
It’s a pick-your-poison kind of moment. But whatever the issue that symbolizes it for each of us, we seem united at least in the sense that the world is falling apart.
And one other profound thing: We don’t know what to do about it.
All these frightening issues of the day loom large, while many of us feel terribly small in comparison. Loathe though we might be to say the word aloud, many of us feel powerless.
As the psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo told me once when I asked him why he thought more people didn’t take action on the particular issue that most concerns me: “Everybody is told they can make a difference, and nobody believes it.”
Afraid and powerless is an awful combination, especially when it seems other people, mainly the rich and famous, have all the power.
But there is another deep, perhaps less often spoken truth these days: And that is, we still want and need to make a difference.
It’s a universal human desire, beautifully given voice, for example, by Beyonce in the video, I Was Here, which she sang at the Untied Nations on World Humanitarian Day.
I just want them to know
That I gave my all, did my best
Brought someone some happiness
Left this world a little better just because
I was here.
So how do we balance our fear of the expression of reckless, destructive power with the beautiful human desire to make a positive difference — and show we were here?
The essential first step, I have come to believe, is, as in all things, to start small. Forget scale. Forget comparisons. Forget that self-defeating question about what difference will our act make in comparison to whatever the issue that concerns us? Because that will only lead us to one dark place: inaction. Just do one small thing. Don’t judge it. Just do it.
There’s a story the Buddhist teacher John Tarrant tells in his book, Bring Me the Rhinoceros, that speaks to the heart of this for me:
“A friend was in the Paris Metro when a disheveled man came onto the subway train…The man seemed to be drunk or deeply disturbed; his shirt was off, he was bleeding, and perhaps he had been beaten up. He was sweating, gesturing violently, and swearing at the young women in the car. As he spoke, saliva sprayed from his mouth. It was clear, my friend said, that he wanted something, but he was also a frightening apparition and the young people in the car made themselves small and pressed back against the sides of the car, hoping not to be noticed. My friend, who is Japanese and already small, was not sure she understood what as happening, so she followed their cue and shrank back with them.
“However, as the man stumbled along the aisle, an old woman whom nobody had noticed until that time reached up and took his hand. She tugged gently. His body followed her hand down, and he collapsed onto the seat beside her. As she held his head against her breast, he began sobbing. In this case, the appearance of the rhino [Tarrant’s word for what might be called the unexpected] changed things for everybody in the subway car: a moment of fear and danger became an occasion for kindness. Such a transformation is one of the truly creative acts a person can bring about.”
Here was one seemingly small, simple act of human kindness that changed things for others — and that was enough. We begin where we begin. We do what we can. And it all counts.
(This post originally appeared on Medium.)