We were at the pub with friends when images of an atrocity (it doesn’t matter which one) flashed on the television screens and hijacked our conversation. The next morning a small group stood in protest at the bottom of town hill (it doesn’t matter for which side) and I wondered, can any of us really make a difference?
Ours is a small town, and yet we sometimes have trouble affecting change in our own back yard. The world is a very big and complex place. How can we possibly hope to influence events hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of miles away
Three hundred years ago, the lives of the people who lived here were not burdened by the knowledge of the cruelty, violence, and injustice of the larger world. Their realms of information and influence were, for the most part, constricted by what they could see and hear for themselves.
Today, technology gives us eyes and ears that span the globe in real time. It makes us witness to every kind of tragedy and horror imaginable. It plugs small town residents into conflicts and crises of national and international intricacy, overwhelming us with the responsibility to do something.
But, what can we do?
Our responses range from intentional ignorance and apathetic indifference to impotent outrage and desperate or hopeful action. We dissect and debate the details, looking for some thread of logic that will explain why these things happen. We try unsuccessfully to apply the rules of the schoolyard to corporate pirates, demented dictators, and renegade terrorists. We protest and petition and vote.
But, does any of it matter?
Not everyone can be an activist. Looking too long and hard at the political, environmental, and humanitarian crises of our day makes me heartsick. From there, it is a quick trip to despair, paralysis, and madness. There is also the reality that we are, each of us, already consumed with living our own lives. But, doing nothing leaves me feeling angry, guilty, and powerless.
The trouble is that our rational and emotional evolution has not kept pace with technology. The Internet has brought the world into our town, but it hasn’t taught us how to deal with it. We did not have the benefit of gradual exposure.
Though I realize it may be naive, I still contemplate the tangled web of global challenges in the oversimplified context of right and wrong the way my parents and teachers and neighbors taught me. I still wonder why we can’t all just get along. People who are more informed and sophisticated than I patiently explain that it just doesn’t work that way.
But, why not?
Despicable tyrants, homicidal terrorists, and heartless tycoons become the people they are because they were either taught to be that way, or they suffered some great hurt of their own. Children are not born with malice or hatred in their hearts. Like the schoolyard bully, these people are made – one small act at a time.
Why then, is it so hard to believe that we can change things for the better – one small act at a time? I have to believe that we are connected by more than the Internet. Though we live in different countries and come from different cultures, though we are of different races, generations, and belief systems – aren’t we all human
I am not in a position to make a big difference by influencing important people or significant events. I am one person living in a small town, doing my best to make my way and enjoy life. But, even though I am often overwhelmed by the scope and scale of the terrifying things happening around the world, I can make small differences. I can be kind to the people I meet. I can be tolerant. I can be generous.
Call me Pollyanna if you will, but since the big world is made up of small towns isn’t it possible that the ripples of small-town kindnesses might eventually change the world? I’d like to think so. At least it gives us a manageable place to start.
This piece was originally published in the Ipswich Chronicle as part of my bi-weekly column.