On Thinking Small and Changing the World

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

The world is not what it should be. In just the past few days, we have been inundated with news about jihadist murder in France, racial tensions in America, an attempted coup in Turkey, and starving millions in Venezuela. I think we would all agree that Someone Should Do Something About That, and we probably feel guilty that we aren’t stepping up to be the Someone who does the Something.

But perhaps we are not quite on the mark about the Something we ought to be doing. Several unrelated social trends have worked together to give our era an unbalanced and counterproductive understanding of how renewal comes and what it takes to make the world a better place.

Our distorted sense of civic responsibility starts with the news media. Thanks to the power of television and the internet, we receive a kaleidoscopic summary of suffering from around the world. It is simultaneously distant and overwhelming. How do I help a million starving children on another continent? The scale is too large to know where to begin, and the distance is so great that we don’t even have the chance. Even when we see suffering up close and personal, we’ve been primed to observe and emote rather than to act.

This sense that big problems can only be solved in big ways is reinforced by our entertainment. It’s not our storytellers’ fault. Heroes make the best stories. But even a tale like Lord of the Rings, which intentionally cast little folk as heroes, cannot help leaving the impression that those unprepared or unable to climb Mount Doom are unlikely to make much of a difference. Samwise Gamgee was famously a homebody, but he only became a hero when he left home.

This isn’t an argument against heroic tales. We need our heroes. If you ever meet a dragon, I hope you’ll have heard enough fairy tales to know what to do about it. But most of life, and most of what makes it better for ourselves and others, is more like tending a garden than slaying a dragon. Perhaps we would understand that better if we knew more gardeners. But in our atomized, busy world of people who are disconnected from everything but their screens, it is easier than ever for us to imagine that the stories on those screens are the only ones worth telling.

This media conditioning combines with the American democratic instinct. We are good democrats; perhaps too good. From Prohibition through the civil rights struggle and on to today, our instinct in the face of social problems is to organize to change the law or get someone elected. Sometimes that is useful, but it means that when we see a problem in front of us we often start by looking behind us to see who else is there. If we’re alone, it is tempting to just give up (what good can I do by myself, after all?) or to head off to “start a movement” to get something done… instead of actually getting something done.

Put it all together, and most of us end up hearing news of suffering with a combination of helplessness and guilt. We have a planet’s-worth of big problems at our fingertips and we don’t feel like we can do anything about any of them.

But that’s not true.

We just need to think small. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

You cannot fix all the world’s problems, or any of the world’s problems, except the very smallest. But that is not your job. Your job is to try your best to fix the problem right in front of you. We Christians, of all people, should know that.

“And he said, ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them…'” (Luke 21:1-4).

“And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me'” (Matt 25:40).

In many ways, Christ’s three years of public ministry were an extended lesson that big things come from thinking small. How many times did our Savior pause to chat with a marginalized woman drawing water or gather a ragtag bunch of children to him? And into what did he pour himself most of all? Building relationships with a little band of twelve men.

Surely God incarnate knew how best to invest his time. And sometimes he did preach to multitudes or feed thousands, but very often the King whose first miracle was to help out an anonymous little wedding spent himself on whatever trouble was right in front of him. Does that mean he ignored the big picture? Surely, of all people in history, Jesus is the last one we could accuse of ignoring the long game. But he knew who he was and how he fit into the Father’s plan, so he did his part—the mundane bits and the dramatic ones too—and trusted his Father to carry out the next parts of the plan through those twelve disciples Jesus had poured himself into and of whom he said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). If the Creator of the universe could humble himself to spend his time on earth playing just one part in God’s plan, surely we can be similarly modest?

The thing about changing the world is that the world is made of people, and people are very hard to change en masse. Relationships just don’t scale. Unless God has put you in a unique place, you can probably change the world for about a dozen people. And, conveniently enough, they are right around you, in your family, at work, in your circle of friends, or living down the road. (That’s how you know they are the ones whose world you’re supposed to change.) So go and love them, joyfully and sacrificially, in practical ways and impractical ones.

It may feel like you are ignoring the bigger problems of the world, but you aren’t. You are taking your bite out of them. And, of course, as we have opportunity we should also help to address the bigger, further-away problems with time and money and prayer. But don’t always be hopping up and down trying to see the whole chessboard. You aren’t the chess master. You are a pawn, and your job is to go straight ahead one square at a time. It’s not especially glamorous, but, as anyone who is any good at chess will tell you—the game can’t be won without the pawns.

Header photo by Ben Stassen under CC BY 2.0, cropped

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