I cannot change the world.
This realization came to me at the age when my eye line met the level of the new stand. I remember ambling behind my mother in a line at the grocery store. Having recently mastered reading, I used my new found skills to decipher the bold headlines. Wars, rumors of wars, Jessica Simpson, kidnappings and killings, something I didn’t quite understand about Michael Jackson.
My stomach hurt.
The world was so large, its wounds so gaping, and I was so small.
I still feel this way sometimes. The bane of my existence (Am I exaggerating here? Even I don’t know) is the “news” feature on Facebook. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have suddenly found myself caring about someone who lost a leg to an alligator in Florida.
Poor person. I can’t imagine what life would be like with only one leg. Why do these strange and violent things always happen in Florida? Where are all these alligators coming from to attack people? Should I be worried about alligators? Wait, are alligators even indigenous to Florida?!?!?
My annoyance with the internet is that it makes us responsible for information we can do nothing about. We sit as idle receivers to the great griefs of the planet. The mass exodus of oppressed peoples from violent territories. Political dramas marked by demagoguery, duplicity, and moral debility. Murder. Foolishness. Great sweeping natural disasters.
The world was so large, it’s wounds so gaping, and I am so small.
In a way, I think this feeling of helplessness is a true response to the world. We are limited, and we cannot fix every problem. We cannot grieve every loss. Exposure to excessive evil is incapacitating because we simply do not know where to begin.
And yet, we are made to feel guilty if we are not “aware” of what is happening in the world. We develop spectator syndrome. As if, by some enchantment, my being distraught over politicians might make them lie less. And so we sit in front of screens, horrified by the world we live in. As if, by chiming in on that facebook argument, I am really changing the hearts and minds of America, even if I do nothing to shape my actual, local community or even my own family.
And so just like when I was young, I turn away from my screen and my stomach hurts.
While training to be a Resident Advisor, my leader gave us a small sheet with this prayer on it.
I am limited. If I do not sleep, I will die. If I do not eat, I will die. I cannot meet everyone’s needs. I am not God.
How completely obvious, and yet how necessary.
Wisely, our leaders realized that the foundation of caring for others, leading, and, if you’ll have it, changing the world is knowing what you can and cannot do. If you try to do and be more than you are, you will eventually explode like a canary cage trying to hold a Rottweiler.
David prayed this:
Lord, my heart is not proud;
my eyes are not haughty.
I don’t concern myself with matters too great
or too awesome for me to grasp.
Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself,
like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk.
Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, put your hope in the Lord—
now and always.
(Psalm 131, NLT).
I think sometimes it makes us feel important to know every issue and have an opinion about everything. But I don’t believe this helps us love or change the world. While we look to “matters too great for ourselves” we forget to look to the day in front of us, and the people to our right and left, and we forget that before we can do any earthly good, our hearts must be rested like a weaned child against its mother’s breast. In his novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens called this “telescopic charity”; trying to save the world we see through our telescope, forgetting faithfulness to the one right in front of us. Because we are small. Limited. Imperfect.
In my mind, the people who have done the most good in this world were driven not by a vague sense of obligation to humanity, but by a specific need they gave their all to address. An illness that needed to be cured. An injustice they wanted to see righted. A skill they could hone to give beauty and truth to the world.
The truth is, our world is bleeding, and it needs brave heroes to bind it up with the love and compassion of Christ. But we will never be effective or healthy if we do not live in the confines of our human limitations; if we do not know what we can and cannot do. And while the alligator victim certainly deserves compassion, I cannot plausibly help them.
There are needs enough in front of you. Why begin with the difficult task of changing the big, wide world when you ought to begin with your own world? Your own heart?
It is my firm conviction that I am not called to change the world. When I live in the terror of the general in-troubleness of the world, I am good to no one. If instead I turned the news off, listened to God, loved my family, did my job with excellence, invited my neighbor over for dinner, volunteered at a homeless shelter, called my grieving friend, and wrote my little old blogs, I hope I could be of some use to the world. That through loving Jesus and following him, my life would be a testament to the Kingdom. And perhaps as my faithfulness grows, so will my arena. But that is not my business.
My business is to turn my eyes from the screaming headlines, trust God, be faithful, and love my neighbor.