How much difference is enough?
Back in the spring, I wrote a blog post saying that I wasn’t trying to save the world right now. As I’ve been pondering how to get back into the work of saving the world, I’ve bumped up against a big problem.
If I’m going to try to save the world, I don’t think I can be satisfied until the whole wide world is fixed. I’ve always thought that was virtuous, but now I’m realizing it might simply be a recipe for banging my head against a wall.
Here are some of the numerous environmental problems that I’ve recently confronted:
- Prenatal Exposure to Pollution Raises Risk of Autism in Kids
- Meet the Town that’s Being Swallowed by a Sinkhole
- Fukushima leak is much worse than anticipated (in which we learn that 75,000 gallons of irradiated water pouring into the Pacific EVERY DAY may be an underestimate).
- And don’t even get me started about the mercury polluting our oceans and contaminating our food.
With these issues, I’m not even talking about climate change, which I agree with other environmentalists is the greatest challenge of our time. (And it is… but are we letting all of these other challenges build up unnoticed while we struggle and fail to deal with greenhouse gasses?)
It’s enough to make me cry. Which I’ve done. Several times, while thinking about the futility of it all.
Tomorrow we celebrate the anniversary of the March on Washington, when bold activists and the engaged public stood up for something that really mattered to them – their freedom. Those people made a true difference for our nation. But even their work wasn’t permanent. It requires constant vigilance, as we learned from the Supreme Court this year.
Or as Rabbi Arthur Waskow once said to me, “Every generation needs to take out the garbage.”
If Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his entire movement couldn’t fix the world permanently, how can I possibly expect to? And if I can’t, is there a point to my efforts to try to make a difference?
Usually at this point in the conversation, someone brings up Pirkei Avot 2:21, about how it’s not our job to complete the work but we also can’t desist from it. I feel pretty sure that the rabbis in the Mishnah weren’t referring to saving the environment, but it’s a good message.
Still, it’s a struggle. How do we ever know that what we did is enough? And if we’re type A leaders, driven to results, how is a world of perfection to be pursued without burning out completely, feeling we never got there?
How can we ever feel we “got there”?
I’ve been thinking that somehow, the only answer is that the world is OK as it is. There is no “getting there,” there is only “being here.”
Hard as it is for me to imagine, hard as it is for me to confront, this is the world we have. It’s not a match for my values, but it is exactly what it is – not some other world that I imagine, but this world that we have. The fact that it doesn’t match my values gives me the golden opportunity to try to express my values, to aim to bring the world a little closer to the picture I hold dear. And that’s one of the greatest gifts of life.
As an activist, as a human being, how have you dealt with the question, how much is enough? I want to know. Please tell me what you think in the comments.