Small actions, big change

Alya Bohr

Here’s the thing about a lot of bright-eyed millennials: we want to change the world. No, we may not know exactly what we’re doing after college or what specific career we’re angling towards, but we know we “just want to make a difference.” Whitman is brimming with passionate, talented people and I have no doubt that many of you will, in fact, go on to change the world. But that’s a little bit beside the point right now. It’s really easy to have lofty goals, to project ourselves into the future, envisioning grand plans of making a difference and doing good in the world, and yes, I think that’s absolutely a valuable thing to work for. But there’s something that’s a lot harder and arguably more important than having a vision for the distant future: doing good in the world right now, exactly where we are.

It’s all too easy to get caught up in daydreams about what our lives will be like when we finally shoot out into the real world. It seems like that’s when things really get started, and that right now we’re only prepping. But these are our lives—this, right here—and we may as well live like it.

So, how do we make a difference right now, in this moment? How do we live by the values we espouse instead of just imagining them in our future? I’ll let author Kurt Vonnegut take a crack at the answer: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” Maybe it seems a little trite and a little simple, but that’s because we’re so primed to dream big. I’m not saying we shouldn’t dream big (please, end poverty! Stop human trafficking! Solve the refugee crisis!), but sometimes when we dream too big we can feel powerless. And when we feel too small to help, we get stuck. Changing the world seems like an unattainable task, but anything short of it feels too miniscule to matter.

But it does matter. Those little things—a kind word, a thoughtful gesture—they make a difference. The mighty oak, the little acorn, you know how the saying goes. It’s okay to start small. Heck, it’s okay to stay small! The point is, we could all do a lot worse than be kind and loving and work to reduce the pain in the lives of those around us. Change, after all, happens person by person, moment by moment.

There are so many people whose external lives reflect a myriad of accomplishments and accolades, but whose personal lives tell a different story. If we get caught up chasing perfectly packaged moments of success, we can lose sight of the things we have the most control over: our own lives, our actions, our effect on those around us. The legacy we leave doesn’t have to be a laundry list of impressive achievements; it can simply be that we touched the lives of those around us, that we made people feel valued, appreciated, seen, and cared for. That, I would argue, is a revolutionary act. We sometimes forget to prioritize these things when our frame of reference is so zoomed out and our focal point is somewhere in the far-off horizon.

We are constantly faced with choices of virtue: to be honest or lie, to be kind or bitter, to help others or focus on ourselves, to do right or wrong. If you want to make a difference, try leaning in the direction of kindness, of honesty, of goodness. Your littlest actions matter; the ripple effect will carry them far. And that, my friends, is enough to change the world.