As our wooden canoe glided quietly over mirror-faced Lake Bunyonyi, I dragged my fingertips through the cool water, savouring the blissful peace of being in the middle of a mountainous somewhere in Uganda.
Knees hunched, I sat behind my fellow travel mate whom I sensed was deep in thought. We had just visited a school teeming with adorable kids, many of them AIDS orphans. We’d sat with them in small open cabin classrooms as they recited their times tables. We’d sang with them, laughed with them, played with them, said our goodbyes. I was even rocking African-style braids, courtesy of seven or eight kids who had clamoured enthusiastically above my head to claim their own plot of hair.
Then, she finally broke her silence. “I wish I could do more, you know?” she mused, sadly. I listened as she expressed feeling helpless about not being able to contribute much to those kids other than her smiles and a small donation to the school. And I nodded sympathetically – this was a conversation I’d had many times before.
What my travel mate was feeling is not uncommon to those of us who have suddenly had a monster mother of a problem thrust upon us after reading an article, watching a documentary or travelling to a less fortunate place. Human trafficking. Sex slavery. Civil wars. Poverty. Hunger. Disease. Malnutrition. Gender discrimination. Need I go on? The issues are too big; the statistics are horrific. We feel dismayed: What could I possibly do to make a difference? We may become defeated: Why bother? Eventually, we get distant: we shut out world-scale problems because we’re able to retreat into civilised comfort and happily forget – until the next thing smacks our consciences and restarts the whole debilitating cycle again.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
Remember the starfish story?
While walking along a beach, an elderly gentleman saw someone in the distance leaning down, picking something up and throwing it into the ocean.
As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, picking up starfish one by one and tossing each one gently back into the water.
He came closer still and called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”
The old man smiled, and said, “I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”
To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”
Upon hearing this, the elderly observer commented, “But, young man, do you not realise that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”
The young man listened politely. Then he bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it into the back into the ocean past the breaking waves and said, “It made a difference for that one.”
Nope. It’s not just another aww-inspiring story. It actually lays down several principles we can apply to combat that feeling of helplessness we often get in a world that resembles a giant, overflowing ‘too hard’ pile.
Principle 1: Behind the problems and statistics are the faces of millions of individuals. One girl, forced to work in a brothel by threat of violence when she was 13. One boy, born into a life of slavery at a brick kiln with no chance of getting an education. One woman, who will die from childbirth from a preventable health condition. Each individual means the world to someone – they are a mother, a brother, a sister, a friend… But most of all, each are made in God’s image.
In Practice: Give according to your capacity, even if it seems insignificant. Once you realise the immeasurable value of making a difference to even just one person, you’ll start seeing the purpose in each small contribution you make.
Principle 2: You don’t have to worry about every single problem, or know everything about one single problem to contribute. Beware of paralysis by analysis: focusing so much on the complexity or size of a problem that you end up overwhelmed and do nothing.
In Practice: Spend time exploring the areas of need, and narrow down which ones you feel most passionate about. Pick up a generalist book like Zealous Love, watch a documentary like Half the Sky or visit Global Issues to get a brief overview of what’s out there. Volunteer. Do a bit of travelling. Your unique interests, hobbies and professional skills mean you will naturally gravitate towards one or two main issues you can then focus your energies on.
Principle 3: Unlike the young man rescuing each starfish alone, there are already many individuals and organisations working hard to alleviate many different types of problems. All of them are waiting for people to take up their cause alongside them.
In Practice: Do a bit of Googling to find out who’s working on the solutions to the issue/s you’ve identified most with. Scour their website. Find out how they do what they do. Explore how you can best help accomplish their vision. Talk to a representative and ask them what you could do. From experience, they are only too happy to point you in the right direction.
Principle 4: The quip “Only bad news makes the news” is as true in development and social justice as anywhere else.
In Practice: Celebrate the good news and progress already made in your area of passion! For example, visit TEDtalks, browse with the filters ‘global issues’ and ‘inspiring’ turned on – and be amazed at what can be done in the face of all odds.
Principle 5: For Christians, we take comfort in knowing that the God who holds the universe in His hand is also a God of justice, and requires that His followers also ‘do justice’. Timothy Keller’s challenging book Generous Justice covers this in more detail. A God who loves justice will surely take your tiny spark of willpower and fan it into a raging fire.
In Practice: Ask God for the wisdom to know how you can help, and for the heart to carry it out. Then believe that He will give it. Simple as that.
What thoughts and practices help inspire you to press on with making a difference?
Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
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