How We Can Do Good and Make a Difference
It seems hard to help other people these days. Unless we are first responders or work in essential jobs, we are isolated.
My friend who used to work at a senior center feels purposeless and adrift. Another friend who volunteered at a local charity doesn’t know where to channel his energy and compassion, now that volunteers aren’t allowed.
Some things have started to open up. My church is allowing a few people in, reservations only, temperatures taken at the door, no hugging or chatting with anybody outside the family. My friend’s charity will soon be using a limited number of volunteers. Intrepid teachers are heading back to the classroom, with schools a patchwork quilt of in-person attendance and online learning.
This weekend I ventured out to a restaurant for the first time in months. Diners were positioned 10 or 12 feet apart with the option of patio seating. A refreshing breeze wafted across the patio, blowing away my fear that stray Covid droplets might find their way to my table.
But despite this uptick in activity, the last few months have led to increased introversion. Watching a steady stream of negative and alarming news can sap a person’s resolve to be involved. With church buildings shuttered, volunteer opportunities diminished, and social distancing limiting our contacts, it’s hard for people who are normally active to find an outlet for altruistic impulses.
People still want to make a difference; to find purpose and joy through activities that take us beyond ourselves and teach us to look outward. But our options are limited.
Some of my religious friends are praying and waiting. “Now is a good chance to draw closer to God,” one of them told me. “I find more time to pray.”
My problem is, I’m the type of person who draws closer to God when I’m out and about rubbing shoulders with the community. My spiritual fervor isn’t kindled by a steady diet of news and isolation.
Maybe that’s my fault. Another friend said, “Read your Bible. Get in the Word. It revives your spirit.”
I agree there’s truth and comfort and spiritual revival in the Word. But these days, my mind is prone to wander. I sit down to read or pray and my thoughts dart and flit like the birds around my birdfeeder. When I have all day to do something, I tend to put it off until the day has slipped away. I’ll wait another day to do…whatever.
It seems the entire world is waiting for something: a vaccine; an election; a return to “normal.” But after six months of waiting, being in a continual holding pattern gets old. Should I continue to wait, too, or should I find ways to reach out?
N.T. Wright poses these same questions in a slim little book called God And The Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on Coronavirus and It’s Aftermath. He concludes that we look to scripture and to Jesus for our answers. For starters, according to Wright, Jesus would pray. (Exactly what my friends suggested I do). And we don’t have to be in a church to pray. We don’t even have to be in the right frame of mind.
Jesus didn’t say to his disciples, “Find a nice church building, enlarge it with a building fund campaign, put on a good concert so people will want to come, and then we’ll have a whole group praying.” What he said was, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray earnestly that God will send laborers into his harvest.”
This tells me two things. I need to pray, and I also need to be a laborer for good. There’s work to be done. The harvest is plentiful! But in this new time, I need to find a new way to labor.
A New Way
There’s a scripture verse about pouring new wine into old wineskins. Doing this causes the wineskins to burst. (Mark 2:21–22). New wine needs to go into new wineskins. I feel the same way about our new situation. We can’t pour our old ways into this current reality. It won’t work. We have to find new ways of interacting.
At the start off the pandemic, I was attending church Zoom prayer meetings. The Zoom prayers weren’t doing anything for me as I stared at the computer and strained for a holiness I didn’t feel. I needed to find a new way; new wineskins. So I found a prayer partner. Not a Zoom prayer partner, but a real one. She and I started meeting on the outer fringes of church property, where a forgotten bench sits in the shade of an old oak.
We settle on opposite ends of the bench, social distancing, and we pray about whatever is on our hearts; the country, the riots, the election, the virus, our husbands and grandchildren. There is no agenda; no formal prayers. Separately and together, we talk to God. That’s all. We simply talk.
When I pray, God answers. (Maybe you call God the universe, or your Higher Power. God goes by many names, and responds to many prayers.) My prayers open spiritual channels and ideas flood in. All I need to do is follow the spiritual nudges; those “God” ideas that strike me at odd moments.
I have the sudden prompting to call a lonely friend or cook a meal for a sick family; to stock the local food pantry or buy children’s clothes for the foster care foundation. Maybe I should send a card to the neighbor who had surgery. These are the “God” ideas I’m talking about.
Small things make a difference
It’s easy to ignore these nudges. They seem so trivial. But sometimes it’s the smallest things that make a difference. A smile, a meal, a phone call can say to someone else, I care. You matter.
“Fashion your life as a garland of beautiful deeds.”
Helen Keller said, “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks, as if they were great and noble.” Yet in doing small tasks, Helen Keller accomplished great and noble things.
St. Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
Do no harm
Reaching out to others is important. We can do small things with love. But another way to do good during these polarizing and strange times is to refrain from doing harm. In a world of social media, it’s easy to do harm from the comfort of our living rooms. Insults and hostilities traded back and forth on social media are expressions of hatred and negativity that spread like a cancer.
The Apostle Paul said, “Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.”(Ephesians 4:29)
Each word a gift! That’s a tall order. Watching the way we talk goes against the Facebook and Twitter wars. Some people who claim to be spiritual hide behind the anonymity of social media and use those platforms to behave in a decidedly unspiritual way.
People speak not just with words, but with actions and attitudes. Those actions and attitudes can be a gift, perpetuating kindness, or a thorn, tearing at fragile emotions.
The biggest barrier to kindness is this: we have to ditch ego and replace it with humility.
I watched the news and saw anti-maskers marching proudly through Target, defying the store’s request to wear masks. They didn’t believe masks were necessary. But the efficacy of masks isn’t the issue here. The issue is, how many of our “rights” are we willing to sacrifice to speak the language of peace and love?
Speaking peace and love into a volatile situation is one more way of spreading kindness and doing good in the world. To be peacemakers, we need to find new ways to interact on social media and new ways to make our point. New wine in new wineskins.
There is so much good we can do in the world, even if we don’t venture far from home. Our little acts of kindness, words of peace spoken into a storm, replacing ego with humility, can make a difference. These times call for new ways of relating, of listening, of understanding. We can’t go back to the status quo. But our small efforts can make a difference.
You’ve probably heard of the butterfly effect: the idea that small things can have non-linear impacts on a complex system. A butterfly flaps its wings in Mexico and causes a typhoon in China. Small events serve as catalysts that act to start conditions.
My favorite aunt used to say, “You can get busy and do something or you can sit around on your butt and think about it all day. One of those things leads to a sore butt. The other one leads to everything.”
I don’t want to wait around in limbo with nothing to show for it but a sore butt. I want to flap my butterfly wings. Don’t you?