Over the last decade or so, the TED talk – the 18-minute messages given by prominent artists, techies and other cultural figures – has become shorthand for showcasing the ideas the speaker most seeks to put into broad circulation. And at this week’s marquee conference for the program in Vancouver, the usual roster of celebs…
When I was about 7 years old, I was deeply troubled about the people I heard about in Africa. I still remember distinctly the conversation I had with my mother. (Probably, I’ve written about it before, and if you’ve heard it already, I apologize.) I wanted to send food. No, she said: it would not be let in the country. I wanted to send money. No, she said: it would end up in the hands of the wrong people, and would not help the people I longed to help. But, she said, you know what you can do? You want to be a doctor. When you grow up, and you’re a doctor, you can go and provide medical care, which is something much-needed.
Sure. But I wanted to do something NOW. (For the record, I never made it to med school, but still support Doctors without Borders.) Anything I could have done would have made my little heart happy. Now, I read about kids who do these incredible things to raise money for charity, and I’m so glad for them. And little envious, of course: would that I had been able to get outside of the box my mother unwittingly set me in that day.
Even as a grown-up, I’m still struggling with that box. The desire to do something has never left me, and I wonder what on earth a theologian struggling to make ends meet can possibly do in a world whose needs are cavernous, seemingly infinite. I pray, of course. It’s free, and it’s in my skill-set, if you can call it a skill. But I still want to do that thing, that big thing that will make a real, tangible, visible difference in the life of someone, somewhere. I want to see some obvious change. I want results.
This is both blessing and curse. I can’t wish away the gift of a desire to make a difference, the gift of caring about the world and all the people in it. It’s the way I have borne that desire through the years that makes it a curse. Because I am a huge fan of George Eliot, and of the very end of Middlemarch, in which she observes that things are not so bad for you and I because of people like Dorothea, who ‘lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’ It’s not the big things. It’s the little things. But these things make no obvious change, they seem to be very tiny drops in a vast, empty bucket. In everyday life, I can carry no more than an eye-dropper full of difference-making, and the bucket is bigger than I am.
So usually I find myself frustrated that I am not making headway. In fact, many, many days, I seem not to be doing anything to make the world a better place. Even the little things, the small kindnesses to those in my household and neighborhood…some days I fail to do. And then the curse comes at me, full force, cursing: you’ll never make a difference. Why try? It’s pointless. How can you imagine that the world will ever be any better because of anything you’ve done? You can’t even be nice to your family!
Maybe not. At least not unfailingly. And yet, failing doesn’t have to mean I ought to give up. I have to remember I am still the kid who kept asking: but couldn’t we do this? couldn’t we do that? The blessing isn’t the ability to change the world (for the better) in big, obvious ways. The blessing is the ability to get up, when yesterday I failed utterly to do anything kind or encouraging, and to think that today, I still might.