A smile, striking up a conversation with a stranger, listening empathetically to a co-worker, a few hours volunteering a month: is this any way to change the world? We may feel real change requires a charismatic leader or extraordinary moral strength. But, as the late Senator Paul Simon pointed out in Fifty-two Simple Ways to Make a Difference (2003), even large movements succeed mainly because ordinary people make modest efforts. No act is too trivial, and none of us is too busy or insignificant, to help make a difference.
Youth activists Craig and Marc Kielburger have taken up this idea in Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World (2006). Believing that “the urge to reach out to others is grounded in the best of what makes us human: an innate need for connection that we must fulfill in order to reach our full potential” (p. 252), they share many practical, manageable steps people might take to bring about a reorientation from self-interest and unconcern to community and compassion. Instead of feeling that we don’t have enough time, money, or ability to share with others, they suggest we adopt an attitude of generosity and empathy, realizing that we each have something valuable to offer. The key is making a habit of small steps while changing our attitudes about what gives life meaning and happiness. Through these individual efforts, together we can in time “bring about a fundamental shift in the psyche of a people” (p. 252).
Their own stories illustrate the power of one person to effect change. In Craig’s case, when he was twelve he was profoundly disturbed one morning by a newspaper story about the murder of a Pakistani boy crusading against enforced child labor. Confused and angered that children could be so exploited, he did some research and then asked permission to speak in one of his middle-school classes about it. When he asked for volunteers to help him work for children’s rights, eleven students raised their hands. That was the beginning of Free The Children, now an international organization of children working together to end child exploitation, promote children’s rights, and support education for poor children worldwide. The impact on the lives of others globally that a group of children is able to have encouraged these brothers, still in their twenties, to make this endeavor their lifework.
While few of us have the opportunity to work full time for a cause we believe in, all of us make a difference every day in our families, our school or workplace, and our neighborhood. “It’s tempting to believe that the way we’re currently living is the only way to live. It’s also misleading. We all make choices every day, and by making different ones we can change the path we are on” (p. 47). For instance, we might decide to get to know our neighbors, greet people by name, see if an older neighbor could use a hand with repairs and chores, visit a nursing home, let a manager know how satisfied we are with an employee who serves us, spend quality-time together as a family, share our knowledge or skills with a young person, or become more involved with neighborhood schools.
We can also make a difference in our city, nation, or even worldwide. We might learn about a different faith or culture, join or create an interfaith coalition to work on a community problem, get to know impoverished people in our community, support companies that respect and protect the environment, buy locally-grown foods, turn off the lights when we leave a room, visit a prisoner or help him stay in touch with his family, encourage our company and co-workers to get involved in a cause, or volunteer individually, as a family, or with a friend (40% of people who volunteer did so because someone invited them to). Nobel Peace-prize recipient Desmond Tutu calls the morning paper “God’s prayer list delivered straight to my door” because it presents so many issues containing possibilities for change. Once we discover a cause or situation that moves us, we can research it and figure out how we can make a difference. Senator Simon suggested writing to government representatives or officials, remarking how often a letter from an ordinary citizen influenced his actions in public office.
The possibilities are endless. The important thing is to start, on however small a scale, because
Now is the ideal time to begin living Me to We, and wherever you are now, you’re in the ideal place — personally, socially, physically. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, sick or well, if there’s pressure on you at work, or if things in your life are going as smoothly as you think they should. It doesn’t matter where you live, who your friends are, or what your childhood was like. In the end, the decision to reach out to others is related not to our personal circumstances or level of ability but to our choices and priorities. — p. 260
(From Sunrise magazine, Spring 2007; copyright © 2007 Theosophical University Press)