What Are My Actions Really?
I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about myself and the impact that I leave on the world around me.
From people to places to the very ideas that pop in and out of our heads, I’ve been compelled as of late to consider the lingering moments we leave behind with every word and every touch.
Perhaps that’s corny sap, but I’ve also seen it in action. This summer I taught a course about journalism, sharing with middle and high school students the importance of a robust and precise news media in maintaining those people, places, and ideas. In sustaining and giving them new life.
In teaching teenagers, I was all of a sudden reminded of my own age. While the sense that I’m getting older is a creeping certainty (although at 20 it’s hardly one I feel I should be alarmed by) I was brought back to it in full force by teaching that class. It has been anywhere between four and eight years since I’ve been in the same position as those students. And although I can remember some aspects of what it is to be a shy. awkward middle schooler, it became very apparent to me in my time teaching that I’m not them. I don’t share the same being. Not in exactly the same way.
I’m in a different phase of my life. As I stand on the precipice of my final year in college, I look forward to the next nine months with a greater mix of anxiety and anticipation than I ever have before.
In a few short weeks I’ll fly out of the United States for just the second time in my life and visit Ireland, a land that I’ve never seen with my own two eyes. And then I’ll return to Milwaukee and then to Atlanta and then I’ll don a blue cap and gown, walk across a stage, and try to find something out there in a great wide world of somethings.
It’s these wild swings in place and personage that have made me think about the wake of my own self. I endeavor to be a good person. A kind person. In strides, I try to live up to the slogan of my beloved Boy Scouts by doing a good turn daily.
But what does that mean of the bad I carry out along with the good?
Because of course, as kind as I may endeavor to be, as honest and true an Eagle Scout, I am also a human being who swears and forgets and breaks things he shouldn’t. I may accomplish my goal of doing a good turn daily, but what if for every one such thing I accomplish, twice as many bad ones crop up as well?
I’ve wrestled with this thought from a multitude of angles: surely I’m overall accomplishing far more good than bad, even if by pure mistake and the irrationality of my own human psyche I produce bad things sometimes; surely through my faith in the grace of a divine and loving God my imperfection is acknowledged and accepted, set to be washed away by a yet to come cosmic reawakening.
And yet…I have my doubts.
I have my doubts because though an imperfect creature I may be, can not bad actions butterfly their way to grand dilemmas the same way good ones can multiply to fruitful harvest? Sure, teaching the tenets of journalism to high schoolers may be a wonderful thing to do, and perhaps I’ve kicked off a wonderful lifetime love for learning or reading or writing or some other noble escapade, but what if when I shouted at my sister I similarly initiated a sorrowful part of her own existence that will cause her to grow to yell and berate her own spouse or children? What if those folks turn to darkness to cope with their pain?
What if when I didn’t tip my Uber driver and the corporation shafted him on a fair wage, he decided that he couldn’t do it anymore? That he had fallen too far and that the world was too grim to ever give him the chance to climb back up again?
Looking at singular action may be silly, I admit. I alone surely will not be responsible for the infidelity of my sibling’s spouse or the suicide of a down-on-his-luck rideshare driver. But actions compound, and I’ll be the first to admit that there are times when my frustrations compound to become bad habits. And on top of all that, there’s really no way to tell so precisely what bad habits may’ve already compounded in someone else’s life.
I suppose that’s the risk we all take each day when we step out the door. That’s the adventure we implicitly agree to in life. And yet, I think of ways we make it no easier for one another.
Hate is spewed as a national language in the United States; vitriol from all sides, directed toward all sides, and it breaks my heart. The increasing dearth of a gentle word, especially in the corners that need it the most, calls forward to me again these bad actions that I undertake. However small, they might be rending the world apart all the same.
Hate did not rise to rule the world in a single night, but rather slowly, gradually, through miscommunication and the unwillingness to understand and stand by one another, even in our many differences. Hate rose to rule the world through those very tiny actions or inactions every day of some people in every corner of the world. We’ve all had our part to play.
And it is that underscoring of inaction that I dwell on most. The words that I don’t produce, that I leave unsaid. That helping hand that I do not extend, do not rise from rest to employ. I attempt to be generous with myself here too, but it is often that I am reminded of that poignant scene at the closing of Schindler’s List wherein Schindler realizes that, if only he had sold his escape car or a simple gold broach he still wears on his suit jacket, he might’ve been able to save just one more Jew from the horrors of the Holocaust.
And though I do not believe my life to hold gravity in parallel to that of Schindler, there are still times where I believe his claim to be the most accurate thing in the world.
For how can I know if the good turns will outweigh the bad unless I give everything? Unless I am absolutely certain that I am spent and there is nowhere else to turn?
Am I leading an incomplete life?
The answer is most certainly yes. Yet with that, I am not sure my charge is to live a complete life in an equivocal sense.
The more that I dwell the more that the words of Itzhak Stern, Schindler’s assistant, grow in my mind, quoting the Talmud: “He who saves the life of one man saves the world.”
I’m not sure this is as all-encompassing as my disquiet mind might like, but it does provide a point of light and a path beyond it. I touch many entities in this world, sometimes in nearly undetectable ways. It does not necessarily take the weight of the world to counterbalance the good and the bad, but rather the execution of small acts. The salvation of a single life.
There may’ve only been six souls that I affected in that cramped classroom in a tiny town on the outskirts of Atlanta, but, if Stern’s Talmud is any guide, that’s enough to save six worlds.
Yet, I am not greedy. I will rest content, if only for now, with my focus upon this world in singular.
Originally published August 15, 2019 on The Odyssey Online. Some minor edits have been made for clarity. (https://www.theodysseyonline.com/amp/my-actions-really-2639808559)