Life brings me many opportunities to talk with people who are serious about their work in the world, work that almost always involves some form of healing. Their lives are very different, but their dilemmas are often the same. Almost all of the teachers, therapists, community artists and activists I meet torture themselves about whether their own efforts are enough.
Some of my artist friends are daunted by consumer culture. “Sure, this was a great project for the neighborhood,” one friend says, speaking about a play written and performed with a group of local kids. “But have you seen what people watch on TV every night? How can we compete with that?”
Some of my activist friends feel discouraged by the steady drumbeat of false patriotism urging us to shut up and obey. “I’m just a drop in the ocean,” they say. “How can one person make a difference compared to all this money and power?”
Some of my therapist friends find themselves reeling at the newspaper headlines. “The people whose lack of self-knowledge affects us all are the least likely to seek help. Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing here. It seems like a great luxury to spend an hour with this family or that individual when people at the top of the power structure are so disconnected.”
“There are thirty students in my class,” my teacher friend tells me, forehead creased above pained eyes, “and on any day, some are texting their friends, some are reading a magazine, some are staring out the window, some have cut class altogether. How do I get through to them?”
“Are any of the students involved?” I ask her. I know her to be talented, dedicated, inventive and caring. “Are there some who have been strongly touched, even awakened through your classes?”
Her face softens. “Yes,” she says. “Yes, there are.”
In my own school days, I was part of a group that clustered around a favorite teacher. He cheerfully endured countless after-school hours of adolescent questioning. That time meant everything to me. But during class, our group was outnumbered by boys who tore out sheets of binder paper to draw pictures of hot rods and girls who passed notes, indifferent to discussions that ignited my curiosity, opening my path in life.
“Can you keep trying with compassion for all of them,” I ask my teacher friend, “knowing that what you offer will mean the world to the students who are ready to receive it?”
“I can if I remember that,” she says. “But it’s easy to forget.”
The peculiar trap set by this form of self-discouragement is that it leads to doing even less. If I see my own efforts as too insignificant to matter, I may as well abandon them. Even looking through the cynical eyes of despair, the result is this: the ocean of caring holds one drop less.
We tend to see this as a contemporary problem. Surely, we tell ourselves, today’s crises are uniquely overwhelming, with our little planet carrying more than 6.5 billion human inhabitants. But I don’t think so. Indeed, we can reach back millennia to retrieve the same advice I gave my friend, that to do what we can is to do what is needed.
“He who saves one life,” says the Talmud (and the more recent Koran makes reference to this same text). “it is as if he saves an entire universe. He who destroys a life…it is as if he destroys an entire universe.”
Here is something Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who lived through the worst of Vietnam in the sixties, had to say on the subject in a recent interview:
[P]eace always begins with yourself as an individual, and, as an individual, you might help build a community of peace. That’s what we try to do. And when the community of a few hundred people knows the practice of peace and brotherhood, and then you can become the refuge for many others who come to you and profit from the practice of peace and brotherhood. And then they will join you, and the community gets larger and larger all the time. And the practice of peace and brotherhood will be offered to many other people. That is what is going on.
Human history is filled with plagues, wars and tragedies that seemed to signal the end of time. Human beings since time immemorial have felt small and powerless in the face of these challenges. In response, spiritual teachers have always offered the same truths: when we extend ourselves in compassion even on the scale of a single life, we are doing our part. Despite centuries of development in the sometimes questionable arts of persuasion and compulsion, no one who wishes to help has ever been able to do more than this: offer wholeheartedly, then deliver fully to those who wish to receive.
When I allow myself to hold this thought (that is, when I stop letting the cynical part of my brain use it for target practice), I feel much better. How about you?