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The Limits of What We Can Do

Posted by mikeonpurpose on June 9, 2010

Kent Green, a blogger for La Vida Idealist, writes about the feeling that some volunteers get when, no matter how much they volunteer, it is just never enough:

But it’s important to cast your desire to add to the world in a reasonable frame, otherwise you’ll never be happy with what you’re doing.

Example: Right when I left for Costa Rica, the earthquake hit Haiti, and I thought, “I should be there.” Then Chile gets rocked, and I thought, “I should be there.” Now, I see Guatemala getting doused by massive floods, and I think, “I should be there.”

The desire to make a positive difference in the world can run into the reality that there is so much that needs to done and there is only so much any of us can do.

While I have not done nearly as much volunteer travel as Kent Green has, I can relate.  After coming home from my first voluntourism trip, I was already thinking about doing another one.  I also felt more inspired to sign up for short term volunteer activities in my local community through One Brick.  In my case, the need to  make a difference in the world was compounded by having just turned 50 and the recognition that the clock of my own life was ticking.  Volunteering gave me a sense of purpose and the affairs of everyday life seemed mundane and boring in comparison.

How much of this urge is about me–fulfilling my sense of purpose–and how much is about others–focusing on how my contributions benefit them–is not a question I can entirely answer because both motivations are probably intertwined.  In any case, I am reminded of a bit of dialogue from the movie The Year of Living Dangerously.  Billy Kwan, the idealist, talks to Guy Hamilton, the cynic, about the poverty that surrounded them in Indonesia:

And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?

What’s that?

It’s from Luke, chapter three, verse ten. What then must we do? Tolstoy asked the same question. He wrote a book with that title. He got so upset about the poverty in Moscow that he went one night into the poorest section and just gave away all his money. You could do that now. Five American dollars would be a fortune to one of these people.

Wouldn’t do any good, just be a drop in the ocean.

Ahh, that’s the same conclusion Tolstoy came to, I disagree.

Oh, what’s your solution?

Well, I support the view that you just don’t think about the major issues. You do whatever you can about the misery that’s in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light. You think that’s naive, don’t you?


It’s alright, most journalists do.

We can’t afford to get involved.

Typical journo’s answer.

When Billy Kwan says that “You do whatever you can about the misery that’s in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light,” I think he has hit the nail on the head. But where I would disagree with him is his statement that “you just don’t think about the major issues.” I don’t think that these are mutually exclusive. You can focus on the misery that is in front of you and still think about the major issues.  Ultimately, I believe that the root causes of  the problems that lead to some of what our volunteer work is directed at–poverty and injustice and racism–cannot and should not be ignored.  A reason for focusing on what is in front of you is so as not to get overwhelmed by those major issues, which in turn can lead to despair.   Each individual can only do so much, but we can hope that all of our little contributions can make a difference.  We do what we can do–plant the seeds and hope that they will grow.

One Response to “The Limits of What We Can Do”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Idealist, Kent Green. Kent Green said: Thanks to Mike on Purpose for the shout-out http://su.pr/1xPZ4B Anyone with an @idealist mindset should check MoP out. […]

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