It seems almost impossible these days to listen to the news without getting depressed. Whether it’s the flood of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria or another idiotic inflammatory statement by Donald Trump, the deluge of information about the world’s disasters and our political system’s incapacity to respond effectively often leaves me feeling hopeless.
What can any of us possibly do to help?
I hear the question a lot these days. I was listening to WNYC radio the other day when Brian Lehrer was interviewing a BBC journalist reporting on refugees arriving in the Balkans. A woman from suburban Westchester called in, sounding almost desperate. “I think the Syria story has touched us immensely,” she said. “I feel personally an incredible frustration… what can we do to make these people’s lives better?”
It’s an understandable, even laudable, reaction. We all have a natural desire to help people in need. And while we can give money to aid organizations, or sign a petition asking our government to do more to help, I think there’s a human desire to want to do something more direct, something where we see the result of our efforts and feel some real connection to those who are suffering. At a deeper level, I think we want to feel our own lives are about something that matters — something beyond the daily grind of our jobs or household obligations.
With the 24-hour bad news blaring, it can be difficult to remember that how each of us lives our lives – whether at the front lines of a humanitarian disaster or in a comfortable middle-class suburb — can actually make a big difference.
I’m reminded of this quote by the German poet Johan Wolfgang von Goethe:
I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized.
I heard this recently from a meditation teacher, Christina Feldman, in one of her many excellent talks (available online here). Feldman was underscoring the power of our minds to determine our own moods, perspective and experience, and thereby also our actions. Those things, in turn, shape our world, as they shape the world of those around us.
Feldman often cites the Buddhist teaching that what we dwell upon frequently becomes the shape of our minds. The shape of our minds, of course, shapes how we see the world, and how we see and interact with others in it.
We may not have the power to provide safe havens for the thousands of refugees fleeing war zones daily, or even to get Donald Trump to stop talking — though we can turn off CNN. But we have a great deal of power over how we view and respond to the world. And that is one way that we can actually make our lives matter.