I have been trying to save the world for decades. Not only by marching in a demonstration here and there and voting in every election, but after forays into being a secretary, a paper mill worker, and an optician, I found myself working in social services, trying to teach people how to make a better life for themselves. I wanted to help people. Thank goodness for my patient yet insistent supervisor, she got me to see that I could not fix things for people, nor could I give them my solutions to their problems. After that, I was a better helper. I became a good counselor when I deeply understood that getting into social work in order to help people is a bad idea. If you want to help people, find a place to volunteer, there are scads of great ones, your generosity will be welcomed. In order to get into social work or counseling, you need to be fascinated with human behavior, be aware of where you are judgmental (because we each have those places), and be able wade through human misery and loss without drowning. This helped clarify my job into a career. And my heart into compassion, not fixing.
Yet, as the years passed, there were weekends when I came home and wondered why I was doing this work: people relapsed, went to back to jail, lost custody of their children, harmed other people, and they died. I knew on some level I needed to do this work as I had grown up with my family’s credo of service to others, yet it seemed pointless, like bailing a sinking ship with a teaspoon. Then I heard about the boy who came upon a beach covered with hundreds of starfish after the tide had gone out. He began tossing them out into the ocean. A jogger came along, and stopped long enough to say, “Kid, you’re wasting your time. It won’t make any difference, ‘cause you can’t possibly save them all.” The boy reached down, picked up another starfish, and skipped it out into the water. “Maybe, but I made a difference to that one.”
That story clinked into place inside me and I felt renewed. After a while, like a decade or so, that renewal also began to wane. So much to get done with my little teaspoon, management mandates of ‘do more with less,’ and headlines of senseless violence all wore on me.
Last Wednesday, I watched Joan Baez walk out on stage. Calmly, unself-consciously, she smiled, nodded to the audience and picked up her guitar. She knows she’s Joan Baez yet is so grounded and clear about who she is, and isn’t. She sang about hope, life, love, freedom, prison, kindness, beauty, oppression, commitment, and joining together. She told a story about a peaceful resistance in Ecuador. Even though the dictator was still in office when she left, the people and she had sung together with peace and hope.
She reminded me that we each do what we can do. We do it with dignity and respect and grace. And if we’re lucky, we do it with some style.