Life is full of those classic questions meant to haunt us until we discover the answers; for example, how do we know the difference between good and evil, what is our purpose on earth, and, most frequently, how do we plan to change the world? There seems to be a nationwide obsession with the latter question in particular, as well as a sense of inherent moral benefit in asking it.
That question, like so many others, was answered for me more simply than I expected, and through the influence of Mother Teresa and one college professor.
Not only was my high school a college preparatory school, it was Christian. Between these two distinctions, you can imagine how often I thought, and was asked to think, about how I would someday “change the world.”
Honestly, it bothered me each time I heard it. I felt as if there were a Platonic obligation for myself – and all of my peers – to pursue political leadership for the benefit of the masses. Otherwise, we had to become famous enough in whatever random profession we chose that we could utilize our positions of power.
Realistically, I thought, most of us will become teachers or pharmacists or engineers, and that’s if we’re lucky. I wondered if that meant we didn’t have an equal opportunity to make a difference. The idea disturbed me.
Even after graduating, I couldn’t escape. Every scholarship or college entrance essay I wrote was a variant on the same question. Daunted, I began to pursue a degree with the end of being a wealthy, high-powered, and well-known investigative journalist in mind. I understood it was idealistic, perhaps unrealistic, but I didn’t want to waste my life. I wasn’t sure how to go about avoiding that except to be idealistic; adults had implied that to me for the last four years.
I knew there were those who accomplished the steady climb into influence and renown, like President Obama, and made good use that boon. I also knew I was no Obama. I didn’t want power or position, but I did want to do something to help a broken world of broken people.
With this in mind, during my freshman year of college, I was surprised to meet the man I would marry. I had, amusingly, planned out my next ten years in my subconscious, including where and when I would meet my spouse. I imagined we would both be embedded journalists in the Middle East, ducking behind military jeeps, dodging bullets, and writing of our adventures together (at this point, I think it’s safe to say I was being idealistic and unrealistic).
Instead, my husband graduated with a physics degree, and we plan to go off to seminary together in a few years.
We didn’t talk about marriage until my sophomore year, at which point I had already begun to see that the life of a journalist was more high-energy and unpredictable than I ever wanted. I arrived at a miniature moral dilemma: did rejecting that life make me unmotivated or, even worse, unable to “change the world?”
A turning point occurred midway through our engagement. My most protective uncle sat my now-husband and me down, and he began to interrogate us without missing a beat. My uncle, a triple-digit doctor at the city hospital, seemed to believe in education as the be-all and end-all of life, and encouraged his children, nieces, and nephews to become doctors if they had the minimum intellectual capacity to do so.
Knowing I had some smarts, he summarily asked me what I planned to do about school, as I was to be wed before my junior year. How would I make a difference when I was tied down by marriage?
I didn’t know what I was going to say beforehand, but I found myself pouring out the convictions I had never articulated to myself before. No matter where I went or what I did, I said, I would make a difference where I was put. I would help people. I would put others first at all times, whether living in Los Angeles, California or Purcell, Oklahoma. That’s how I would change the world.
I understand if you find that sappy; it sounds sappy to me. Maybe you would hear it better, as I did, from Mother Teresa. A woman once wrote to Mother Teresa, asking to join her in her work in Calcutta. The woman desperately wanted to make a difference, and she didn’t know how else to do it.
Mother Teresa replied to her, “Find your own Calcutta.”
This world is composed not of things and places, but of people: people themselves should be the focus of our push for betterment. We can feed the poor all day, but if we don’t actually care about the poor as individuals, the action will be devoid of meaning. In the same way, a depressed teen doesn’t just want medicine, he wants comfort and support. A struggling single mom doesn’t just want more time and money, she wants empathy and friends’ willingness to come to her rescue.
That being said, I don’t think Calcutta is very far away.
One of my teachers has found the crowded city in the journalism building on campus. The man likes to talk about his wife and children, make shocking jokes to keep the class awake, help students navigate the endless credit-hour spiderwebs so they can graduate on time, and be a world-changer without knowing it.
During his class, a peer commented that she appreciated movies with dark, ambiguous endings, empty of heroes, because that was like real life. My teacher picked up her cue. He commented on his firm belief in heroes, and in having an ideal to hold onto for hope.
He had told us earlier about some of the lowest times in his life and the redemption he found at the end. He spoke with the same fervor as he answered my classmate. He wasn’t preaching. It was personal to him, and he wanted to help her. She approached him after class and asked to talk with him.
I found out soon afterward that she had been struggling with depression.
I don’t know what my professor said to her, but she sounded encouraged as I read her blog post a few days later.
Two weeks passed, and it was my turn. I was emotionally shot: I felt numb, unmotivated and purposeless. I fought to get out of bed in the morning. I read and prayed and wrote often as a means of getting through each day; writing was about the only thing I could still put my heart into, it seemed. I published one of my articles online, and felt a small victory.
Not long after I did, an anonymous writer destroyed my already-tenuous confidence with a curse-filled comment on the utter idiocy of my article and its author. His criticisms were invalid, but he struck a nerve, hard. Already depressed, I fell completely apart.
I emailed my professor; he had talked to his students about dealing with scathing criticisms before. I didn’t try to hide my devastation. I was ready to give up on pretty much everything.
I tried to forget how hurt I was by the next day, when I saw that I had another comment on the article. Out of morbid curiosity, I decided to check it.
Beneath the insult from the day before was a defense of the author, a defense of me. It was signed by my professor.
Like I said, I don’t think Calcutta is very far away. I may or may not see this man again once I graduate, but I will never forget his gesture. He exemplified the way I believe we can change the world. “Changing the world” is still what I intend to do.Powered by Sidelines