Friday, November 05, 2010

To Make a Difference

(News-Herald, November 4) I may have recently logged the one gazillionth time I’ve heard someone make the basic complaint about the allegedly tragic lack of things to do in Venangoland.
You know the drill: “Well, of course I’m going to go out and drink too much/eat too much/sit and be bored/jam a pencil up my nose/whack myself in the forehead with a ball peen hammer,” says the poor, disaffected soul. “There’s nothing else to do around here.”
I’m not going to get into the argument about what there is or isn’t to do around here. We can save that one for another day, and in the meantime I acknowledge that everybody has his own idea about what constitutes “something to do.”
But if your comment to me is, “This place/job/school/neighborhood/city/solar system stinks,” my response is, “Okay. What are you doing about it.”
That classic question, “What difference can one person make?” is not the real question. The real question is “What kind of difference do you intend to make?”
Every person makes a difference. In fact, no person can avoid making a difference. Every single time you simply walk through the same space as another human being, you make a difference. You might smile and say “Hi,” or you might grumble some obnoxious curse, or you might pass by as if the other person were non-existent. Whatever choice you make, it makes a difference.
Every circumstance presents us with choices, and every choice we make makes a difference.
Part of our problem is that we have confused “difference” with “earth-shattering changes that shift continents and throw a million lives into gyrating vortices of gasp-inducing drama.” People who suffer from this confusion should be encouraged to pay less attention to tv and more attention to the way actual humans live their lives.
Another part of our problem is that we forget how hard is to spot the choices that make the most long-lasting ripples in the lakes of our lives. My fifth grade music teacher Miss Gause chose to confront the boys in the back of the room and try to make them actually listen to musical pitches. When my father was younger, he decided to collect a few Glenn Miller albums. Neither was a large, dramatic choice, but together they influenced the trajectory of my entire life.
On the other hand, I watch plenty of teenagers get wrapped up in massive drama that, ten years later, has had less lasting importance than what color shirt they wore to the Homecoming dance.
So every single choice makes a difference. We just don’t get to know up front how much difference it will be.
The final fallacy that we fall for is the notion that since we can’t change everything, we can’t change anything.
When I step in a classroom, folks from the people in our central office through the suits in Harrisburg on to the bureaustocracy in DC back to my own students have made choices about my classroom that I have no power over. But I still get to—have to—make choices about how I will conduct myself, how I’ll treat my students, what kind of atmosphere I’ll try to create.
We live in a world where we have steadily decreasing power over our circumstances. But we always have choices. We always have the choice to treat other people well, or not. We always have the power to push for the things we want to see in the world, or to complain because they haven’t magically appeared on their own.
So don’t tell me “I did something stupid because that’s the only choice around here.” There are always other choices, and you are too old to play “Look what you made me do.” If you made the stupid choice, don’t try to blame it on your surroundings, because at the end of the day you are one of the co-creators of your circumstances. If you think your circumstances stink, check in the mirror to find one of the people responsible.
Certainly there are limits. You can only live the life you have, not the one you wish you had. And you will never have the power to create a world in which everyone else acts exactly the way you think people should act. On the other hand, you will always have all the power necessary to create a world in which you act exactly the way you think people should act. That’s a power that shouldn’t be wasted.

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