I have so many friends who are watching the horrendous violence unfold in Syria. We feel helpless, voyeurs to massacre on the other side of the world, but as close as our hi-def big-screen TVs. What can we do? What can I do? What can anyone do?
This is always the question. I saw hungry children in Africa. What can I do? I watched a story about child prostitutes in Thailand. What can I do? I saw Israeli tanks blasting chunks out of a building in Gaza and rolling over olive groves. What can I do? I saw starving dogs rescued from a puppy mill. What can I do?
We can’t always do something. Sometimes we can. My family has been able to donate some money to worthy causes, like famine relief in Africa or earthquake relief in Pakistan. We certainly can’t do anything “on the ground”. We can’t hop on an airplane and fly to Africa or India or Syria and drag people away from chaos and disaster. We can’t shut down an abortion clinic in Calcutta or swoop down to rescue orphans from hard labor in some village somewhere else. What can I do? Can I call my congressman? Can I write a blog post to raise awareness? Can I take my Starbucks money and send it to an orphanage instead? What can I do?
This feeling of helplessness is not fun. I know I feel like I should be doing SOMETHING, anything to help those poor starving people in Africa, or the besieged citizens of Homs, or those unwanted girls in the villages of India, or the child slaves or the mentally ill being abused or the abused animals or the polluted land. Pick a disaster; unfortunately there are plenty from which to choose.
So what can I do? What can you do? Well, I’m a big advocate of “think globally, act locally”. If you can’t help a person halfway across the world, then maybe you can help someone a little closer to home. You can volunteer in your community and make a big difference in someone’s life. You can work at a food pantry. You can go out into the community to feed the homeless. You can start a coat drive. You can teach youngsters how to grow food in a small garden. You can tutor a homeless child.
Well, but I’m not saving a LIFE, you say. I might be helping reduce misery in the world just a little bit, but I’m not feeding a starving child, merely a hungry homeless guy who might be a drunk or a drug addict anyway. I’m not keeping a destitute woman from dying of exposure, but only setting up a cot to make a street person more comfortable. I’m not stopping a tyrant from killing an entire village, I’m just knitting hats for preemie babies at the hospital. I’m not doing much of anything, so why do anything? I’m not saving a life.
You don’t know the result of any good deed that you do. That bowl of soup you hand out to the homeless guy may be less important than the kind smile you offer him. He might see that smile and finally realize he’s still a human being. That smile might propel him to toss away his bottle of booze, get clean and sober, and get off the street.
You might not be saving the life of the homeless woman in the shelter when you set up that cot, but she might see the effort you make, the compassion in your eyes, and muster the courage to make it through one more day. She might see that you picked up her child’s fallen toy and carefully dusted it off before giving it back, and realize that she can dust herself off as well and keep going for her sake.
You might not be saving the life of the poor family that needs to come to the food pantry to get enough groceries to make it to the end of the month, but the father who is ashamed to not be able to feed his kids might feel the pat on the back that you give him and realize that he has the strength to go on and keep looking for work because there are people who care about him and he is not alone. He’ll be grateful that you put in a box of cookies for the kids along with the practical pasta and beans.
You might not be saving the life of the middle schooler who looks to you to teach her remedial math, but she might realize that there’s an adult who believes in her and she might then come to believe in herself, and to learn to love school, and to not get pregnant and drop out and end up on the dole.
Saving a life is not always about saving a life. Saving a life is not always about saving a physical body. Saving a life is often about saving a soul, helping a person who is not in immediate danger of death, but whose soul is dying bit by bit and in need of revival. By offering a compassionate smile, a kind word, a warm coat, a bowl of soup, a hand up, a lesson, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, you might save a soul today and a life twenty years on down the line.
I won’t pretend it’s not frustrating to look at all the chaos and death going on in the world and not be doing anything about it. I won’t pretend that children won’t die in Syria because of what I’m doing in Virginia. I won’t pretend that it doesn’t hurt to see a frail child on TV looking out at me on what may be the day of his death due to starvation. We are human and we are compassionate and yes, we should shed tears at such sights. And if we can help, we should. If we can give up that venti mocha latte and send the money to Somalia, or Pakistan, or to our poor cousin in Egypt who needs an operation, we should indeed do that. We are not totally helpless and some of us can do a little, and some can do more. But we can’t let our inability to help over there paralyze us so we don’t do anything over here. And just because we live in the “first world” and it may seem that our people in need are not in as desperate straits as people who are literally living on the edge of death, that doesn’t mean that what we do here is less important. EVERY act of compassion is important. So find out what the needs are in your community and then do what you can to help. Whether you are a professional businessman or a stay at home mom, there is something you can do. Money or no money, there is help you can give. You have a talent, an ability, a thing that you do that is uniquely you that you can use to help benefit someone else. Figure out what it is and then go do something. Just do something. You might be saving a life and not even know it. Even if you’re just serving a bowl of soup or knitting a hat.