When I woke up this morning, stretching and daydreaming of the pancakes I would later make, I thought to myself, “This day is for me. I’m going to do what I want.”
About an hour later, a good friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer called me crying. As a Floridian, she was worried about her friends, especially those she couldn’t reach. No one expects such carnage to happen in her backyard; this shock mingles with a helplessness that makes you wish you could be there to do something, to help in some way, while the other half of your brain tells you there’s no difference you could possibly make.
While washing dishes, I thought about my own responses to these tragedies. Terror, anger, and despair rush through my veins in waves of intense emotion, muddying my thoughts as I try to make sense of them. The problem is that there is no sense in actions of deep-seated hate, such as in the attacks in Orlando. So how should I respond? What should I do? What can I do, if anything?
It saddens me that in the aftermath of these tragedies, my feelings dissipate, and I continue my daily life as if they never happened. I don’t forget them, but I forget the feelings of anger and despair as my life drifts further away. That’s not the way I want to live my life, that what happens one moment brings tears, while the next brings laughter. I don’t want my laughter to ignore the thousands crying out of sight, pushing their plights out of mind.
Which brings me back to this feeling of despair, the reason I return to my life as if nothing had happened. The truth is, there is not much I can do to make life better for those affected by these attacks. I am one insignificant human being, more flawed than I wish, with a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. But the fact remains that so many people I love, and even more I’ve never met, live in the kind of pain that makes you want to throw something across the room, because somehow picking up the broken pieces forces you to put yourself back together.
In the New York Times’ columnist David Brooks’ recent article, “The Moral Bucket List”, he writes about those people that bring light to the world, who
“seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.”
Like David Brooks, I want to know how these magically light-filled people buoy others’ day to the point of improving the world by some immeasurable quantity. In an allegory depicting these beacons of light as stumblers- those who constantly seek fulfillment in a struggle larger than themselves- Brooks’ discovers that “The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be,” often because “The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance.”
My mission in life, since I decided I needed one years ago, has been to change one person’s life for the better. At times this seems impossible, that one messy, silly person could affect such change. But I have to try.
This morning, as I scrubbed the shower tiles, I realized even this is not enough. To affect change- to do real good, I have to stumble, to live always better than the last moment. I need to live outside myself, in a world where depending on others is good because only then do we realize how another soul complements ours, improves ours, strengthens ours.
So instead of imagining each day as unconnected to the last, I realized I could live each day in my mission of changing one person’s life for the better. I will live my life thinking about one difference I can make in one person’s life in that one day. I know I won’t prevent mass shootings, I won’t win a Nobel Peace Prize, I may never even change one person’s life for the better, but I can make people smile. I can make them laugh, even (and often, especially) at my own expense. I can make people remember that however much hate fills spaces of doubt, love is still there to overthrow it, for it is stronger than hate. Love motivates us more, pushes us harder, and surrounds us more fully than hate. I choose to be mindful of how I can increase that love, to let it take flight one person at a time.