Sunday, January 11, 2009

Doing what we can

“I can’t save the world. I don’t even want to try. I don’t even care if I save one person. I just want to get my degree and make more money than god.”
“You told them that?” I asked, astonished.
“Yes. Why not?”
“And they admitted you?”
“Yes. They don’t care. They all went into the medicine for the money too. Someday, if I make it all the way to being a cardiac surgeon, I’ll make upwards of a million dollars a year, drive a Porsche, and live in a high-rise luxury condo. How much money are you going to make in whatever rinky-dink little job you have?” (Said as if the difference in our future net worths was all that mattered about us.)

The above is from a conversation with a classmate several years ago. I was a freshmen in college, she was a senior who had just returned from her admissions interview at one of the finest medical colleges in the country. They had admitted her on the spot. This girl came from an upper middle class family and had decided to come to our little school to ‘save money for med school’ rather than take a full scholarship to an ivy league school. Or so she said. Really, she came there so that she could lord it over other students who weren’t as bright and/or as well off. (She never liked me because I was even smarter than she was, and as a freshmen was in some of the same classes, so she deliberately tried to aw me and put me down. It was just like high school all over again.) She made no secret of the fact that she was going into medicine, and hopefully cardiac surgery, so that she could become very wealthy. Now, I picked my major over money as well but I had a different goal –enough money to keep a roof over my head, food on the table, and give to charity. Being wealthy was not even on the list.

Years later, that conversation still haunts me. Why? Because of this part. “I can’t save the world.” She said. And even then, I was thinking. “You could at least try.” I was laboring under no assumptions that any one person could actually save the world. Even then, I knew better. I grew up in hell itself, and clawed my way out by the skin on my teeth. That kind of upbringing tends to strip away many of our cherished illusions. And yet, I was less cynical than someone who had been infinitely more sheltered than myself.

No, I can’t save the world. Neither can she. Or you. Or anyone else. None of us, by ourselves, can save the world. But all of us together? Or a large number of us? If everyone in the world, or even the majority of us, joined together, then yes, we could save the world. I will be the first to admit that that is not likely to happen. Not anytime soon, at any rate. But does that mean that there is nothing we can do? That we are doomed to failure, to watching the world crumble and burn before our eyes? Hardly.

I am reminded of an old, old parable. I first heard it when I was a small child. It will periodically be passed around on email lists. It goes something like this: There has been a great storm at sea. Much damage has been done to the sea, and the creatures that live there. On the morning after the storm passes the beach is littered with jetsam and flotsam. Among the storm debris are many thousands of starfish who have been flung from the water. They lay on the sand, futilely trying to return to the water and slowly dying. A man comes walking along the shore. Every time he sees a starfish, he picks it up and flings it back into the waves. Another man comes walking down the beach. He watches the first man in silence for sometime, as more and more starfish are tossed back into the water. Finally, he approaches the man and asks him “Brother, why do you trouble yourself this way? Why do you do this? You can not possibly save them all.” The other man is silent for a moment. Then he says softly. “No, I can not.” He picks up another starfish and flings it back into the water. “But I saved that one.” He walks on, and continues in his lonely job. The other man stares after him, perplexed.

This story is more than a simple parable. It illustrates two different ways of looking at the world. One man sees the world as so flawed nothing can be done to save it. Why bother to do anything? You can’t save them all. The other man also recognizes the problems inherent in the world. He knows he can not save all the starfish. But instead of despairing, he walks down to the beach and beings throwing starfish back into the water. No, he can not save them all. But by his efforts, some of them will be saved and a tragedy will be lessened.

There is a lesson in this for all of us. Who do we wish to be –the man who saves the starfish, or the one who looks on in confusion, humor, or despair? In these times this is far more than an academic question. Dark times are upon us and a Shadow is spreading through the world. What is happening is not easy to bear and what is coming will be even worse. Even when it is all over, in perhaps our grandchildren’s lifetimes, there will still be much work to do. All the ills of industrial civilization will still need to be cleaned up. There will probably be even more devastation before it is over, as the coal ash spill in Tennessee proves. There is an area up there right now that is doing an adequate impression of Mordor. There will be even more such in the times to come.

How do we respond to this? In despair, or hopelessness? Or, like the first man, by picking up the nearest starfish? We can not do everything. Nor can we save everything. But if we try, perhaps more will be saved than would otherwise be the case. Perhaps we can do something. If enough of us band together, perhaps we can even save the world.

The choice is ours.

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Blogger MoonRaven said...

What a great post, RAS.

Your analysis is so correct. None of us individually can save the world. I don't even think a whole bunch of us together can save the world (particularly if it doesn't want to be saved). But (like the man with the starfish) each of us can make a difference--and if a lot of us worked together, I think we could make a big difference.

As you say, "...if we try, perhaps more will be saved than would otherwise be the case." I know a bunch of us are trying. This is good motivation to keep trying.

1/11/2009 11:17 AM  
Anonymous murph said...


A most excellent post pointing out some of our choices. As a moral/ethical issue, do we do what we can or give in and do nothing positive? Do we keep an outlook beyond our own position and needs?

It is going to take a mass paradigm shift to have an accumulative effect. I often wonder if I will live long enough to witness it.

The new Archdruid report has an interesting post on this subject.

1/11/2009 11:19 AM  
Anonymous freeacre said...

Well written and challenging post, ras. Hopefully, when the bottom really falls out from the financial markets, your cardiac surgeon-in-it-for-the-money types will be recognized as not only financially but morally bankrupt as well. The positive side of this collapse, it seems to me, is that it is going to be SO disruptive and damaging, that people are really going to have to look at it and figure out how we went so wrong. At that point, people with an alternative will have a change to be influential. Hopefully, it will be the star fish saving type that will point the way and not the bullies and exploiters.
Everyone has something that he or she can give. And, the more we give, the more abundant we feel. The more we all reach out and help each other, the more of a safety net will be created by our joined hands. It falls to all of us to make it so.

1/11/2009 1:55 PM  

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