Hope for a better world

The Difference One Person Can Make

In the process of recently going through some of the journals I had in storage, I was surprised to come upon an incident I’d totally forgotten about.

It was 2004 and I was a new grad student in Oakland at the University of Creation Spirituality. We were in a circle introducing ourselves to one another. The next day my new friend Joya said to me, “Last night you said you were going to change the world, and I believe you will.” I corrected her saying, “Help change the world.” Marta, who was nearby, chimed in along with Joya. They both said, “That’s not what you said. You said you were going to change the world.”

How interesting that I had that much confidence in myself! And how fascinating that I don’t remember that incident at all.

What I do remember is this: in high school I wrote in a diary that I wanted to either make a big difference in the world, or make one person very happy. (And yes, it does rather embarrass me now that “making one person happy” was considered an adequate, sufficient, or worthy goal.)

After college, no longer constrained by the responsibilities of endless studying and testing and grade-getting, I was more than ready to dive into “making a difference.” It was the Reagan era and we were stockpiling nuclear weapons like mad, preparing for a war that would succeed only in destroying the entire planet. I worked like mad, feverishly trying to prevent the unthinkable from happening. I was on the boards of three local peace groups and one statewide group. I was on the council of a church which was declared an official peace site. I went to countless meetings and organized countless events. Did I make a difference? Maybe not alone, but when joined with a million other activists, we did, I think, collectively help to prevent the outbreak of an apocalyptic war.

After ten years, I was burned out. It’s extremely stressful to worry each day about the threat of nuclear war, the nuclear plant being built in a neighboring county, and the rampant development occurring in nearby fields and wetlands. I was fried. I needed to find some inner peace. And so I changed my work trajectory and became a massage therapist.

I absolutely loved seeing the look of utter serenity on the faces of my clients after my ministrations. I fantasized about a bumper sticker which read, “World peace through massage.” Would our world leaders be so hellbent on war and destruction if they were touched with loving hands each day? I thought not.

I loved not only seeing the peace in my clients but feeling the peace in myself. I had succeeded, finally, in slowing down the pace of my life, and as a result, my spiritual journey began to unfold.

Fast forward twenty or so years. I’m still trying to make a difference. For several years, post graduate school, I worked as a spiritual and bereavement counselor for two different hospices and was a private duty caregiver for scores of patients, including my own dear parents. My focus was still helping to create peace on an individual level. But unlike with the massage I no longer practiced, inner peace was harder to come by. I was so subsumed in the care of others that my own physical care and spiritual life often took a backseat.

Eventually I began to get clear that it was time to work in a bigger arena. Tending to individuals was important and worthy work, but did I have the ability to reach broader audiences? Did I have other gifts to offer the world? The Universe seemed to be telling me yes. Time after time, the caregiving jobs for which I applied (and for which I was amply and quite possibly over-qualified) fell through. A severely broken ankle cemented the deal. Forced to stay inside while my ankle healed, I focused on my writing. As my ankle healed, I began speaking at churches — first once every four months, and more recently averaging one per month. Personal and group prayer ceremonies and rituals also took precedence as a way to help make a difference on the spiritual planes.

What is the point of this narrative? That we each need to find our way. Each one of us can absolutely make a difference. It will look different for each person because we all have different personalities, different interests, and different skill sets.

I have long loved this beautiful quotation by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“What is success? To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

Some of us make the world a better place by planting beautiful flower gardens or organic vegetables, others by raising kind children, others by fighting for civil rights or working to end pollution. It’s all good. It’s all good.

More recently, Pink, a wise woman in the form of a mega pop star, said the following during her acceptance speech for the People’s Champion award:

“I know that one person can make a difference. You feel like you don’t matter? Feel like your life doesn’t matter? Get involved. You can’t tell me Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Gloria Steinem, Anita Hill, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg.… Tell me one person can’t make a difference.

There is so much to be done. I don’t care about your politics, I care about your kids. I care about decency and humanity and kindness. Kindness today is an act of rebellion. There are people who don’t have what you have, help them get it. There is a planet that needs help; it feels good to help. Stop fighting each other and help each other. Get together with your friends and change the f—ing world.”

So be it. Each one of us impacts the world in ways we can scarcely begin to imagine. Not only our actions, but our thoughts and our words create this world we live in. So, choose well, act well. And know that you can make a difference.