Most people have heard the story about the boy chucking starfish back into the ocean. He sees hundreds of them stranded on the beach and starts tossing them back into the water as he walks along. A man coming from the other direction teases the boy, pointing out that he is hardly making any difference. The boy picks up another starfish, pitches it into the ocean and says defiantly, “I made a difference for that one.”
Soon after Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast, I traveled there with a team and remember how useless we felt cleaning up. There was debris everywhere, and after several trips, the landscape did not seem to be much improved. It is a little like watching a child grow day to day, but then suddenly (it seems) their pants are too short. It took a couple years of persevering, but some areas where we worked in the gulf coast are fully recovered.
Visiting an area of the world like Kenya which is so taxed by corruption and poverty can be overwhelming. We think—“This is such a mess. It will never get cleaned up.” Cynics call any small effort to help a “band-aid approach.” But little efforts eventually add up to big changes.
When we look at the world through the lens of one problem (hunger, poverty, corruption) it is easy to get discouraged. In turn, we tend to let ourselves off the hook, thinking, “My small bit won’t make any difference.” Some may even reinforce their resignation by blaming God for the mess. “Why doesn’t God do something?” Here are a few little thoughts about dealing with big messes…
No one person lives in the whole mess
When we see a child living in poverty, sometime we objectify and make him an icon of the whole situation. But everyone faces their own, specific daily challenges. Sometimes they seem insurmountable. In those times, we learn even more powerfully to take it just one day at a time.
That principle holds for everyone. When we get involved in the lives of others, when we plug into the stories of people like those we see in the news, hope begins to rise. Footholds appear that lead out of their specific circumstances. We no longer despair about the big picture, but instead, put our efforts into doing the part we are called to do.
What am I supposed to do with all this information?
I remember years ago a news story about a boy who was killed in Seattle. I was living in Orlando at the time, and everyone there seemed to be very upset about it. Broadcasting information like this all the way across the country does not often lead to helpful or healthy responses. We have all kinds of information coming at us each day that we can do nothing about. Meanwhile, we ignore problems right around us that are within our sphere of influence.
Our media brings us the big mess every day. What it fails to do is to bring leadership, directing us towards little fixes that add up to big solutions.
What to do?
There is a great quotation from Tolkien’s final book in the Lord of the Rings series. He says,
“It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the aid of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.”
When I was a boy, I asked my parents about the big problems in the world, wondering why someone did not do something. I am not sure exactly what they said, but I remember being left with this impression: You are someone.