How Are You Going to Save the World?
In 1955, a middle-aged woman was on her way back home after another long day of work. She was a little tired, but not any more so than usual.
It was early December, around 6PM. She walked over to her usual bus stop, paid her fare, and then quietly took a seat in the middle of the bus.
Slowly, with each stop, the bus started to fill up, as it often did. Eventually, however, it reached the point where all of the seats ahead of this lady were being taken up, with little room left over.
The bus driver, a man named James F. Blake, came back to assess the situation and then very impolitely asked her and three other people to move further back to make room ahead of them.
The other three passengers moved. The lady, however, refused. Why should she have to move back if there were already open seats behind her?
The reason, of course, was that the bus was divided to segregate people of color from white people. That was the law at the time.
When the bus driver threatened to call the police and have her arrested, the lady, Rosa Parks, simply said, “You may do that.”
She wasn’t the first person of color to refuse to give up her seat in a bus, but her arrest was the trigger that began the Montgomery bus boycott, which paved the way for the larger Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
A simple, defiant gesture on an ordinary day.
Things Are Never Perfect
The world we live in today is far different from the world of Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. I’d argue that it’s better.
From a utilitarian perspective, we’ve made a lot of progress. Worldwide, more people die of obesity than they do of hunger. More people die of old age than they do of diseases. More lives are lost at their own hands than in wars.
There is also less discrimination, and in the western world at least, minority groups are far more influential than they have ever been at any point in history. Naturally, there is still work to do, but overall, things are trending up. There are many reasons to be optimistic.
Yet, we’re pretty far away from perfection. In fact, we may never attain it. After all, perfection is measured relative to what we already have, so by nature, it’s not something that can be attained. There’ll always be problems.
No matter what your belief system or outlook, the chances are that there is something out there that is better than the status quo in some way.
Maybe you’re not happy with the dogmas currently in fashion. Maybe you think that the idea we have of equality is inadequate. Maybe your frustrations just have to do with how the tax system operates.
I actually think that, in a way, that’s a good thing. It gives us something to work at. If we didn’t hold beliefs that contradicted with how the world currently operates, then we’d have a lot harder of a time deriving meaning out of our day to day existence.
If the world didn’t have problems, there would be no visionary entrepreneurs. If the world didn’t have problems, we would have far fewer great artists. If the world didn’t have problems, we wouldn’t be talking about Rosa Parks.
Problems inspire us to reach higher than we currently do. While it’s easy to be pessimistic about things, it’s maybe more accurate to be optimistically driven about what the potential of the future holds.
Does Complaining Help?
There is, however, a caveat. In order for you to believe that the future holds positive potential, you actually have to do your part to create it.
The most fashionable way that we all engage in a form of pretense that we’re doing something is when we complain. We ramble about how bad things are, and we spend our days on the internet arguing in comment sections.
While voicing a concern is generally a step in the right direction, by itself, it’s also one of the most futile things you can do. In fact, quite often, it’s counterproductive. It leads to pessimism without change.
The world does need saving. It always has, and maybe, it always will.
That said, it won’t be saved merely by talking about how unfair things are or why life isn’t exactly as you dreamed it would be. It also won’t be saved by telling other people off or trying to nudge them into doing something.
Granted that bringing awareness to an issue by voicing it can have a rippling effect, just as Rosa Parks’ courage did, but more often than not, change is catalyzed when you set an example, not when you signal your intentions.
And this kind of change doesn’t begin by enforcing your views on other people, but it starts when you change yourself to reflect that you’re living whatever it is that you believe should be a reality. That’s what inspires, and that’s what pushes things forward.
We didn’t get to where we are because people continued to talk over each other. We got here by actually taking the steps necessary for movement.
Don’t complain about things. Change yourself and set an example.
My Challenge to You
There is no law of nature that says that you should be saving the world.
Realistically, you have no obligation to do anything beyond what you want, unless it actively conflicts with how the broader society around you operates.
That said, one of the surest ways to live a fulfilling life is to actually do something about the petty frustrations and ideological conflicts you feel.
Rather than dwelling in the pessimism found in human imperfection and daily complaints, it’s far more effective to quietly change yourself in a way that asks more of the world around you, not through noise, but through example.
Also, changing the world doesn’t just have to be about grand gestures. Rosa Parks proved that. Little things add up and compound.
If you think we need a kinder reality, be a kinder person. If you feel that more people should be courageous in the face of wrongs, then be someone that proves that it’s possible. If you value intellectual honesty, show the people around you why it matters.
Once you start doing these things, take a moment out of every few days to look yourself in the mirror to ask, “How am I saving the world?”
I assure you, no matter what else is going on in your life, if you consistently have an answer to that question, you’ll live a far happier life.