I’ve been volunteering, fundraising, working for charities, and otherwise wearing my bleeding heart of my sleeve for a number of years now. I’ve found that people tend to react in one of several ways when they find out what I do.
There is one common response that I want to talk about today. And that’s the “but you can’t save the world” reaction.
Although I am yet to fully comprehend the logic of this argument, many people seem to believe (or at least want to tell themselves) that if they can’t make the world a better place for EVERY person then they shouldn’t waste their time making it better for even one. And that if they can’t STOP global warming, they needn’t bother even trying to curb it. What a heartbreaking and disempowering story to tell yourself.
It’s not always easy to maintain optimism in the face of global issues – western lifestyles seem to be getting less and less sustainable, human cruelty is highlighted daily in the mass media, and even the most seasoned aid workers sometimes find it hard to keep hope alive when working in places like Haiti.
When I start to feel overwhelmed I always think of a simple story that a fellow volunteer told me when we were both working in an orphanage in El Salvador (and feeling heartbroken about not being able to give more to the children). The story is about a little boy on a beach and a pile of starfish. Have you heard it already?
For those who haven’t heard the story it goes something like this:
One morning I went for a walk on the beach in the very early morning. The night before a wild storm had passed and thrown thousands of starfish upon the shore. Looking up and down the beach, starfish littered the sand in every direction. As I walked along I passed a young boy who was wildly picking up the starfish one at a time and throwing them into the ocean.
“What are you doing, young man?” I enquired
“I’m saving the starfish before the sun comes up and dries them out,” he replied without pausing his labours.
I shook my head at the folly of youth. “Just look at all these starfish, and the sun is rising already. You will never make a difference.”
The boy looked straight into my eyes and then down into the starfish in his hand. He threw the starfish out into the ocean with a smile. “I made a difference for that one,” he said as he continued to work.
It’s a simple message. And a powerful one.
Don’t feel guilty about the starfish you can’t save. You can’t save them all by yourself. Instead be proud of yourself for the starfish you do save. And try to save a few more each day.
You can’t save the whole world. Neither can I. However, when each of our individual efforts are combined we can make a real impact.
I can’t promise that if we each do our part to make this world a little kinder, more peaceful, more hopeful, cleaner, safer and more sustainable that one day we’ll be living in a utopia of hugs and butterflies (although I hope we will). All I can say is that if we let ourselves be paralysed by fear or if we fail to act until we feel we can fix everything, then we will never create the future we dream of.
Helen Keller said it best:
I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.