A few years back, John Mayer had a hit song called “Waiting for the World to Change.” It’s a catchy song with great guitar work, but it always bothered me. In it, Mayer speaks for my generation, saying that we have to keep “waiting (wait – i -i – ing) waiting for the world to change” because the system is too broken for us to do anything about the world’s problems right now. The song’s main message can be summarized in one of its couplets: “It’s not that we don’t care, we just know that the fight ain’t fair.” So, since the millennials can’t change everything, they do nothing.
The song bothered me most because its pessimistic message was so at odds with its upbeat sound. It often appeared in film soundtracks to scenes of people actually changing the world, not just waiting for it, so it seemed to me that no one — not even big time film music licensors — listened to the lyrics. But it also bothered me personally because it pricked at my own conscience. How often had I given up just because of a rigged system or overwhelming possibilities? How often had I despaired of finding meaning in my own life just because I wasn’t doing anything “world-changing”? Mayer’s message may have seemed cynical, but it was also deeply idealistic — the cry of a generation taught to believe they could do anything, at odds with a real world that saddled them with student debt and sent them back home to live with the parents. My friends from youth group all thought they would be world missionaries; they ended up in cubicles.
Those cubicles and temp jobs taught me something important, though. Confronted with the mundanity of dishes and paperwork, I’ve learned that while you can’t change everything, you can change something.
One of my friends, Amy, from Houston, reminded me of this truth recently. Amy was lucky in the recent hurricane. She and her family and home escaped unscathed, but she’s been heartbroken over the destruction around her. Her solution has been to work with a small group of other friends and neighbors to adopt neighborhoods and care for their particular needs. She took to facebook to share their progress and accept donations, and she keeps wowing me again and again with the power of small acts of faithfulness, as individual acts of kindness accumulate to change the lives of those in her adopted neighborhood. She says that they almost gave up on their most recent project because they didn’t think they had enough, so they weren’t sure what the point would be. (Sound familiar?) But as they shared the needs with each of their small circles of friends, more donations poured in and they were able to help a lot of people. She closed her facebook post with this encouragement: “You can’t help everyone, but you can help someone.”
What kind of a person would my friend be if she threw up her hands and said, well, the system’s broken; the city of Houston was built in such a way as to exasperate flood conditions, so there’s no sense in doing anything because it will just flood again? What if she looked at the destruction all around her and said, “Well, I can’t provide for this whole neighborhood, so I’m not going to give to anyone”?
You can’t help everyone, but you can help someone.
Mass tragedy after mass tragedy has filled our news feeds over the past several weeks. From hurricanes and earthquakes to the horrific Las Vegas shootings, so much heartache on a massive scale is overwhelming. The problems seem insurmountable, the scenes of destruction like a bad clips show episode — we’ve seen all this before.
It’s easy to give up. to go numb, and to stop caring.
But I’m challenging myself with Amy’s words: I can’t help everyone, but I can help someone. I can reach one student in my classes. I can say a kind word to my barista. I can give to one person who really needs it. And those individual acts will not only “change the world one person at a time,” they’ll also change me.
There’s a reason the news reports on particular stories of individual loss and courage when reporting on tragedy: we can connect with individuals much more easily than we can with a faceless group. Similarly, we can hate a mass of people more easily than we can hate an individual. Mass shootings stem, at least partly, from viewing humans as a mass — a “lump, quantity of matter,” rather than individuals. When I focus on helping specific people, I recover my compassion for them. Instead of going numb to the tragedy, I remember how to care.
Studies have shown that child sponsorship programs, like Compassion International, are incredibly effective at changing the lives of the children being sponsored, and the reason appears to be something kind of immeasurable: hope. Just knowing that another person cares specifically about them gives that child the hope they need to press on through difficult circumstances and change their lives.
So I’m asking myself who I can give hope to today. Who can I help today? Because I can’t help everyone. But I can help someone.