None of Us Can Change the World, So We’d Better Get Busy!

Gandhi

The other day a good friend and I were discussing the state of the world. Our conversation touched on the Boston Marathon bombing, the Bangladesh factory collapse, drone warfare, Guantanamo, the increasing concentration of media ownership, and the sorry state of the Roman Catholic Church. My friend remarked on the futility of attempting to do anything to change the world situation. Better to simply tend your garden, he said, rather than wasting psychic energy and physical effort to affect what cannot be changed.

I must confess that I found myself agreeing with my conversation partner more than not. It all seems so futile when we consider the overwhelming power of money, the state, the military, and of education and media propaganda whose predominantly conservative purpose is to keep things the way they are.

Suitably depressed, I took up my spiritual reading before going to bed. I’m currently pouring over, perhaps for the fifth time, Eknath Easwaran’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. In The End of Sorrow, the first of his three volume work (The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living), Easwaran addresses the question of “detachment.” By that he means being free from anxiety or depression about the results of anything we do. What I read seemed intimately related to my exchange with my dear friend.

Easwaran points to the example of Gandhi:

“Prior to Gandhi, even people who had seen and grieved over the political bondage of India could not bring themselves to act because they thought the situation was impossible. They could not act because even before taking the first step they were already caught in results. We too, when faced with problems, have a tendency to think, ‘There is nothing we can do about it.’ . . . Wherever we find a wrong situation – in our personal life, in our country’s life, or in our world’s conflicts – we all have a duty to work to correct it.”

The words hit home. It’s giving up in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds that so strongly tempts us (me!). It’s just so easy to give up.

But as Kevin Trudeau reminds us, the temptation gives us far more credit for knowing our situation than our actual condition warrants. Coming from a completely secular and otherwise questionable perspective, Trudeau says we’re like people looking at a computer screen, but seeing only the bottom right hand corner – perhaps an inch square. We just don’t see what’s going on in the rest of the screen at all. But we make decisions and value judgments, we go in and out of depression as though we were all-knowing. We react and get attached to results as though our lives were not mere blips on the cosmic screen.

Thankfully, we don’t know very much. And our brief lives don’t offer much perspective on the effects of our actions. I’m reminded of what Mao Tse- tung’s is reputed to have answered when asked whether he thought the French Revolution was successful or not. “Too soon to say,” was his response.

It’s definitely too soon to say what the effects of our actions are or those of Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Bradley Manning, or John XXIII.

My friend is right. Results are out of our hands. But the person of faith, like Gandhi and those others I’ve just mentioned pushes ahead, doing what’s possible, leaving the results in the hands of the One who directs the universe. Only She sees the whole screen.

I take some comfort in that.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

8 thoughts on “None of Us Can Change the World, So We’d Better Get Busy!”

  1. I feel your discouragement; I feel it every time I listen to the news or read a newspaper — all filtered of course because we hear and see only what has been approved by those ‘in control’ — the powerful, the money people. Joe Kennedy once told his son, Jack, “beware the gnomes of Zurich.” People do not seem to be aware that the “New World Order” already exists.

    No, I am not paranoid. I am not some left-wing nutcase. I am sometimes cynical, and very often angry — very angry at how things are. And I feel naked in my helplessness.
    I take all these feelings to the foot of the Cross and I say, ‘How long, O Lord, how long?”

    I live in the trenches, so to speak. I do what I can when I can. I try my best, with the Grace and the talents that God gives me, to tell people about Him, to live a life that reflects His Way. And I pray. And I speak out about the wrongs I see. My ultimate hope is in Him. He sees. He knows. He will come again when He feels the time is right. Maranatha, Lord Jesus, Maranatha.

    We have and have had so many prophets in our midst. I believe that the names you have mentioned are prophets. And Thomas Merton also.

    The name Mary Harris-Jones (“Mother Jones”) comes to mind. I don’t think you could say that she was a prophet. But, at 60-plus years old she was one hell of a fighter. She tried to ease the poverty and inequities in the lives of the miners in just one small segment of our working population. She was on the front line of the strikers and she faced them off — all five feet of her. Her rallying cry was, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” As an 80-yr. old Irishwoman, unionist, and a fighting soul like her, that sounds like pretty good advice. At least it’s something.

    Peace be with you and quiet your restless soul.

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  2. P.S. I failed to add the name of Archbishop Oscar Romero to my list of prophets. There are many, many more. I just cannot think of their names right now. In your comment about it being ‘too soon’ to know the effects of our actions or those of the persons you cited, I believe that they did two things remarkably well: they spoke out about the injustices they saw; they warned us and told us that we were going in the wrong direction and that we needed to change. But, most importantly, they planted seeds. They didn’t live to see the seeds produce fruit. That is up to the Master Gardner. He will know the time when they are ready.

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  3. And here’s another thought to support your final thought in this piece: “There is nothing impossible in life—as long as we do not need to do it alone,” writes Joan Chittister in the May 2013 issue of The Monastic Way.
    P

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    1. You’re right, Peggy. Personally (and alone) I feel powerless. But when we get together with the like-minded and like-committed, the sky’s the limit. Actually, I was hoping something like that power of community commitment would be generated by our Ecumenical Table. It still can happen.

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  4. Hi Mike

    Excellent – right on-the-button article. And some wonderful comments.
    Permit me a lighter mode.

    It may have been a lucky day for us both. While you met your friend I met mine and they were both talking the same subject with slightly different takes.
    I was on my way home from my local when I took a shortcut, turned the corner into a violent flash of light, clap of thunder and a voice bellowed from above.
    Yo there Jc babe, how’s she cutten.

    I said Yeh!

    I’ve been thinking of you, said the voice, and your problem is you always trying to change the world you see around you.
    And, my friend, the solution is that you got to first change your attitude to what you see around you!

    I said Huuum! Just like John Prine in the song “In spite of Ourselves”!

    Tell me Jc did you ever hear of cat called Hermes Trice-master? Well this guy a long long time ago was the last word in spiritual wisdom and he said to change the word you got to believe in three principles.
    I will paraphrase since back then H3 did papyrus which can be unclear in spots.
    The first, he said, which I know all will be familiar and agree with, is you never pee on the teepee next door. If you do you can expect blow-back – with extreme prejudice!
    The second principle is that there is none other besides God! Got it.
    And the third which is the kicker – is that all things come from Above.

    And the Light went out.
    Now I am not sure Mike if I understood it but I feel Ghandi also could have been talking ‘attitude’.
    But I especially believe we are moving forward. New miracles like electricity happen every day and our evolution is now too gear. One never knows, someday we may even know the meaning of love.
    Thanks always. Jc
    Footnote.
    Hermes Trismagistrus as you well know was real.
    He may have been a composite of a thousand years of the wisdom of the ancients, the saints (gods) and scholars. Just like Jesus his historicity for some is in doubt but way back then the message took prescience over the messenger, since the messenger so often gets prematurely shot.

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    1. JC: I always appreciate your feedback. (I’m still smiling as I write this.) Your words about changing attitude challenge me personally. I’m always afraid of “quietism.” (They spooked me about that in the seminary.) Sometimes I feel I have to rethink that. I know my friend keeps pushing me on that point.

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      1. I will revert to this some time later Mike as I feel the 3rd basic principle (eventho the first one was mine and the universal one !) may be the one I would like to hear more on. Normal understanding says “all good things come from god”, whereas saying all things come from god is a heck of a different situation. This is the one I hoped for enlightenment on. Jim

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