What to Do When You Can’t Save the World

A lot of my thoughts and prayers and worries (and my conversations with my partner) deal with the state of our world and what can be done about it. My partner is a walking encyclopedia of news and statistics, so we are never short on increases in carbon emissions, poverty, and the big machine of capitalismandconsumption that does some good, but does, it seems, much more not-good.

I, on the other hand, am not good at remembering statistics, except that they are typically overwhelmingly bad. I remember senses of things more than concrete information. Essences and generalities.

When I was about five or six when I realized that every person’s life seems as important to them as my life does to me. I was floooooorrrred. I didn’t know what to do with that. Everyone is equally as important. How could I take that all in? Whom should I care about? How were we supposed to deal with all the people in the world who were all as important as my own life?

In a sense, we can never really take that in. We can’t die inside every time we hear a heart-wrenching story about someone who lost their health insurance, lost their child, got deported, slipped through the cracks. We would be useless messes. So we have to filter. To pick our battles. To decide how much of ourselves to give, how much to hurt for others.

One thing I have noticed over the years is that progressive work – religiously, politically, social justice wise, racism and sexism wise, etc. – is about mitigating the harm that goes on in our world. We will not stop rape – we hope to make it less and less.

We will not end global warming – we hope to slow down the destruction.

We will not end poverty – we hope to make it less, less likely, less painful.

People in our congregations and those to whom we minister will continue to make mistakes, encounter injustice, ache so badly that it feels like they will split in two. No work that we do will stop this pain. We can only hope to maybe lessen its frequency, its intensity, its duration.

It is not that we give up on ideals and dreams, but we do not get frustrated when progress inches along at a snails pace. We cannot expect revolution, or we will burn out, give up. I can think of no successful, sustained revolution that changed everything it wanted to change. Social justice work is hard, slow, and, compared to the rate we would want it to change things, it crawls along. There isn’t an end point.

That is not exactly inspiring – we can only slow down the statistics of poor, of hungry, of displaced by floods, of exploited and hurt.

Granted, some things get better. Racism is less these days than it was in the past. Heterosexism is less in many ways.  Sexism is less bad in many ways. We’ve made progress, yet we do not arrive at what we envision.

This is hard to hear. And hard, for many of us to come to terms with. How much should we do if what we do will not save the world? How much effort should we put in for little gains, for baby steps? I think of all the time and energy and money I have put into mentoring over the years. For three young men. Three great young men, but still huge investments on my part. I think of the hassle of rinsing out every cat food can, of flying less than I want, of paying more for green products, of getting up early on Sundays to give sermons that many will forget. Sometimes knowing how minuscule all this is in the scheme of things makes us do less. I know it does for me.

How do we know how much of our lives to give it we are only a drop in the ocean – if we are only mitigating harm?

I think a lot of times our solution is to do a little, enough, so that we can say we are doing our part. Many others will burn out, throw up their hands and give up. Some will never even give it a start – too much. The pay-off is not great enough.

Yet, I often try to imagine myself as the beneficiary of the little harm that is mitigated. Tons of people don’t have clean water, yet many people have it because of the long, slow, hard work to get clean water for more people

A lot of people are hungry or starving, yet many fewer are hungry and starving because people fight hard to make sure that they are fed.

Even if the hunger is not solved, access to clean water is not achieved everywhere, if I was one of those people who was less harmed by the work for justice and equality – with food and clean water – then I would say it is worth it. Probably because to everyone their lives are super-important, even if, to us, they only look like some statistic.

Mitigating harm is not as exciting as winning the revolution and saving the world and eliminating poverty greenhouse gases hunger war. But it seems to me that we should keep pushing ourselves to do more, keeping in mind that each person’s life is just as important as our own, yet knowing that we can never fully grasp this or embody this. We will not bring about the revolution. But we can make a difference in many lives. For me, I am coming to realize that that is enough. It must be and the time I waste fretting about not saving the world takes time away from the many lives that need my harm-mitigation work.

Just some thoughts on stuff I think about a lot.

E

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3 Responses to What to Do When You Can’t Save the World

  1. kylydia says:

    I know that it seems to be bandied about willy-nilly but I think the sentiments of “Be the change” make a lot of sense. If each person worked to be the change they wished to see in this world, they would each be doing a large part in orchestrating that change.

  2. […] the few short years that I have been giving sermons (and blogging), I return to one theme over and over. You know, they say that each preacher has one sermon that he or she preaches over and […]

  3. […] so, six years later, I return to my own words written in 2008 as I grappled with this. At the very least, it is a good reminder for me, but […]

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