I like to ask people this question: What is one thing you can do to make the world a better place?
And there’s always a lot of people who say: “Who, me? I dunno. I can’t think of anything.”
I’ve been surprised to hear people say that they genuinely didn’t think that they could make the world a better place. Or maybe, more accurately, that their lives are not significant, that they don’t count. Or maybe they think that making the world a better place was happening elsewhere.
I wonder about this because if I believe in anything, it’s that what we do—for ourselves, with each other, for strangers—actually does change the world. For better or worse.
I understand that not everyone is working on a cure for cancer, but probably every one of us loves someone with cancer. That’s got to matter, doesn’t it? If we’re here, on the planet, we are changing the planet in some way. None of us gets to live a neutral life. So what’s it going to be?
My kids, my adorable and loving and kind kids, are also occasionally mean or thoughtless or unpleasant. Which is to say they’re human. They try hard to do the right thing. Sometimes they get angry when they hear about a war in a faraway place. I agree with them that war is an outrage. And I remind them that peace (or war) doesn’t happen only over there.
Peace happens when that kid on the playground mocks you and you want to sock him and you imagine the satisfaction it might give you to tell him exactly what you think of him. But you don’t. You walk away and figure out how to calm down before you stand up for yourself with clear dignity and strong boundaries.
Peace happens this way. The world is a better place this way. I believe this. I believe you have a choice about making the world a better place. And when we don’t live up to our ideals, we get to try again the next day. We try to do the right thing. But whatever we actually do, we are affecting the world.
Think about someone you love. Remember the time spent with this person, the things you’ve said to each other, the places you’ve been, the ways that he smiles at you, the way that she can always be counted on. Does this person make your world a better place? Well, your world is a part of the world. And your world affects other parts of the world. It is inevitable. It counts. The only thing to decide is how we’ll affect the world.
Making the world a better place doesn’t happen only with major legislation, with brilliant books, with significant scientific advances, with inspiring art, with innovative ways to protect the environment.
Making the world a better place happens when you want to make a cynical comment about someone and you find some genuine way to appreciate that person instead. When your kid says, “Watch me” seventeen times in five minute and you do. When someone lashes out at you and you manage to stay calm. We make the world a better place by taking care of ourselves and the people we love. We make the world a better place when we help other people feel as if their lives matter, and when we smile at strangers, but even more so when we smile at the people closest to us. When we help our neighbor shovel the sidewalk, when we write a letter to the editor, when we hold a small baby or an older person’s hand, the world is better for it. We make the world a better place when we sit with friends and laugh, when we stop to let the pedestrian cross the street, when we are gentle in our complaints and exuberant in our affection.
What we do makes the world the way it is. Might as well smile.
–reprinted from the Kickapoo Free Press, 2009