“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909), author and Chaplain of US Senate
A new year has begun and you realize that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, so you resolve to make it a better place.
Where do you start? With yourself. Find a quiet place and time to breathe and connect to yourself. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the dire circumstances that millions of people around the world face, then you need to take a deep breath and clear your head. Getting involved with social issues is not a task to be written on a to-do list and checked off when it’s completed. It is a commitment that can transform your life. Is that what you want? Or are you content to write a check to your favorite charity? Ask yourself why it is your favorite cause. Do you feel a real connection to the work it does or does it simply score high on Charity Navigator .
Let’s unpack those phrases.
When you come right down to it, few of us are hermits or certified loners. Even in rural areas, most of us belong to communities: family, friends, neighbors, colleagues at work and school, sports clubs, book groups, religious congregations, etc. We are social animals; our relationships are important to us. We share common values: respect for life and the dignity of individuals, stewardship of the environment that sustains life, and hope that future generations will thrive. How do we promote those values and implement meaningful change where it is needed? Finding a community of concern is a start. Learn about who is doing the work that aligns with your values and seek them out. The Internet makes the search easier, and you can find out who is active in your vicinity so that you can visit them.
We are also moral agents.
We make ethical decisions all the time. Some are routine: imprinted on us from childhood and embedded in our culture. We may give little thought to greeting a neighbor, holding a door open for someone or dropping money into a homeless person’s cup. Others require more thought. A process of ethical discernment requires identifying an issue, acknowledging our feelings about it, gathering facts, and considering alternatives. Who are you and what kind of person do you want to be? How do you define goodness and how do you “act the good,” as the founder of Ethical Culture, Felix Adler, often said? We are all familiar with The Golden Rule that states: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That sounds presumptuous to me; as though I can judge, based on my experience, what is good for others. That’s safe, I suppose, but it doesn’t engage me in a process of understanding what others really need. I prefer Ethical Culture’s emphasis on relationship: “Act so as to elicit the goodness in others, and you will thereby elicit goodness in yourself.” Assume the best in others, especially in challenging circumstances, and choose to attribute worth and dignity to everyone. Now I’m ready to fully participate, not just offer charity.
If you live in an urban area, consider what Karen Armstrong, founder of The Charter for Compassion (charterforcompassion.org) says: “A compassionate city is an uncomfortable city! A city that is uncomfortable when anyone is homeless or hungry. Uncomfortable if every child isn’t loved and given rich opportunities to grow and thrive. Uncomfortable when as a community we don’t treat our neighbors as we would wish to be treated.” Many cities have signed onto her charter and are coordinating the efforts of its helping organizations. Some organizations, like New York Cares, trains and mobilizes volunteers, matching them with community partners. You can determine how much time you have to give and when you are available.
In rural areas, many people in need are isolated and without transportation.
My parents volunteered to drive people to doctors’ appointments well into their old age. It was something they could do, and they enjoyed conversing with their passengers. Dad also volunteered in a local interfaith food pantry. When, as treasurer, he realized that he was running a profit, he seeded a food pantry in another town and helped it grow. In small towns, people often know each other too well and pronounce judgments upon neighbors seeking help. One couple came to the food pantry even though they were known to have well paying jobs. What wasn’t well known was that they often drank their wages at a local bar, and their children were hungry. There is also an ethical choice in how a food pantry is organized. In some, food is pre-bagged and handed to clients at the door; in others, food is arranged on shelves, and clients shop in the aisles for themselves, often with nutrition guides in hand. The former is charity, the latter social engagement.