Author Simcha Fisher gets all the credit for my headline. It’s what was on the card I gave my recently minted high school grad last month. And it’s a mantra I wish I could brand into my fellow citizens here on planet earth.
My most cynical friends and I have been having a debate since the world got less civilized. Since it’s been ok for a standing president to insult women’s looks and intelligence. Since the Kardashians became people more interesting to the American public than authors, artists and educators with big ideas. Since we separate small children from the only people in the world who will love and protect them like no other. Wasn’t it Eminem that said: “Somewhere deep down there’s a decent human being in me, it just can’t be found?”
Let’s just say this debate amongst my friends has raged for a while.
They talk about how helpless they feel to impact a world that seems to have gone mad. One in which not enough people read books, adopt puppies, know the name of their elderly neighbor (let alone visit her once in a blue moon).
And I agree. Helplessness is not my forte and I’ve had my fill of it over the past few months.
But, here is where we diverge, my friends and me. I believe in the art of micro-change.
I am not sure if I believe this because it has any backing in social science. But I am sure I believe it because I see it work in my own life—and because it is one of the few avenues of action open to a common citizen like me.
Put more simply, I can only truly impact within my sphere of influence. Which is limited to my immediate family (albeit large), a dozen or so neighbors, the friends who will put up with me and the 10,000 or so of you who proclaim to follow (and hopefully read) my blog. Don’t get me wrong. I am not poking my head in the sand and saying I can’t participate in larger change. I’m simply saying that my realm of impact, many days, is far smaller. And focusing on that can lead to larger change.
My parents were really decent people. No other word fits as well. They were just good, decent Midwesterners. They were honest if a store clerk gave them too much change, returning the extra. They lived within their means. When they walked the dog, they “scooped the poop”—as my father used to say–whether anyone was watching or not. They used the same manners for everyone, and we were expected to do the same.
I credit this decency with a lot of good in my life. I am not star struck. I speak to captains of industry, television stars and supermodels in my interviews the same way I speak to the woman who cleans my house. My life—despite the ways in which the world tries to complicate it—is relatively simple. I keep debt low. I pay my taxes. I have a b.s. detector better than most. I love good books, good wine, a tub overflowing with bubbles.
So how does all this help me with micro-change? I guess it gives me hope. My basic decency gives me hope, because I believe the same decency resides in so many of us. For some, it seems to have gone dormant and requires a reawakening. Many people are letting the world harden them. I believe practicing decency with those around us is an antidote to that.
I see the ripple effect of being kind to the woman who serves me my coffee, of striking up a conversation with my accountant that goes beyond numbers on a page to the health of his wife and kids. I believe if we each changed one small thing every day, the world would change. What if we didn’t scream back at the road rager? What if we let our fellow customer with just one item to buy ahead of us in the grocery line? What if we wrote the thank-you note to the teacher who helped our child pass a really tough math class? What if we planted the community garden we’ve been talking about for years, so our neighbors could actually meet and interact somewhere?
Cynics will laugh at these suggestions, saying they don’t help combat unrest in the Middle East or prejudice. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Micro-change doesn’t really impact much—until it does. Until it becomes a wave that grows. Until enough of us feel well-disposed enough toward our fellow man that we listen more and dis less. In doing things differently, we can begin to think about things differently. Cart before the horse? Maybe. But I’ve seen it work.
I know one thing for sure. Even if no one else agreed with me, I’d continue to get up each day and live the way I was taught. I’d try my best to be decent and regret the times I’m not. Even if I don’t change the world, I may be raising two sons who can. And even when they don’t follow my example, I know I’m showing them a constant core. A value that doesn’t change, even as the world shifts. I’m hoping that sinks in—impacts them—at some point in their journey to adulthood. I hope they look back and say I made being decent really simple, even though it’s hard sometimes. And I hope they learn to follow my lead until they’re leading themselves.
It’s about all I can do. At least right now. But it spells the difference between change—however small—and helplessness. I wasn’t raised to believe in the latter.