Optimism for me isn’t a passive expectation that things will get better; it’s a conviction that we can make things better — that whatever suffering we see, no matter how bad it is, we can help people if we don’t lose hope and if we don’t look away.”

— Bill and Melinda Gates’ commencement speech at Stanford 

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As an optimist, even I can’t deny it has been a nasty time for world events. If you look only at the aggregate—Gaza and Israel, Robin Williams, Ferguson, ISIS, the loss of another good journalist to extremists—it’s all too easy to find yourself sinking into despair.

When we try to reach our arms around all the suffering in the world at once, we find ourselves coming up woefully short, a surefire way to feel defeated

What part can an optimist like me play in helping others in a time like this? I can’t be a savior. I’m not a soldier or an officer, not even really a journalist in the formal sense—I’m not likely to be of much help in person in most of these places.

Instead, I’d like to remind you of something I teach my writing students: You can neither write nor revise an entire project at once; if you try, you will overwhelm and probably discourage yourself into quitting. The same goes for fixing what is broken in the world. Maybe you can’t change the state of race relations in the nation, but you can look into your own heart, and examine and change the way you relate to the issues, and the people who reflect them in your every day life. Write about it. Call a friend. Share something truthful or hopeful. You can’t staunch, heal or take away the “everything” of anything, but you can tend to a tiny corner of it and see what arises.

Ever notice how popular those videos are of small acts of human kindness? Someone lifts an elderly man who has been knocked to his knees on a busy street; a family tips a hardworking waitress $1,000. A fireman risks his life to save a cat from a burning building. They are popular because little acts of kindness give us a sense of being part of the solution, of not looking away, of caring enough to act. Small acts of kindness restore hope in times of darkness.

Once, last summer, my son and I walked up to our car in a in a San Jose parking lot. The beating sun had so incinerated the hot concrete it made our shoes stick to the dangerously hot ground. As we got into our car, where I was quickly able to blast the A/C, a man in tattered clothing and months’ growth of beard stumbled past us, all his belongings tucked into a weathered knapsack. There was a glazy look to his eyes of a body overwhelmed by heat and probably hunger. He walked with a determined, but heavy footfall, as though each foot weighed a ton.

All I had in the car with me was one bottle of water, a protein bar and three dollars. I pulled up beside him, and handed them over to him, insisting that he go find some shade. I have no idea of his story, how he got where he was, and what happened to him after we left. I could have judged him for being a slacker, a loser, making his own dumb luck. But in that moment I just saw suffering, and I was in a position to ameliorate just a tiny bit of it.

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I don’t think of this as a particularly benevolent act. If anything, I think of it as the least anyone could do in a situation like that. Someone else might have tried to help him find a place to stay, or given him money, or taken him somewhere for a meal. But my son has never forgotten this moment. He repeats it to me over and over. “Remember when you helped that homeless man, Mama? When I grow up, I’m going to do that, too.”

“You don’t have to wait till you grow up,” I tell him. “You can help in lots of ways, and you don’t even have to give money or food to do so.”

In fact, I’m often surprised by what the smallest gesture means to another person. For instance, have you ever noticed the way a frowning, dark-eyed clerk at a business you frequent will suddenly brighten when you ask how their day is going? I recommend you try it. Amazing, too, what a little eye contact will do with someone who is treated as invisible at their job or elsewhere. We rush through our days, forgetting that the people who make our coffee, service our cars, bag our groceries and take care of our children are not other; they’re us. And we all appreciate being seen and noticed as human. Of course you may also try: checking in with your friend who suffers from depression; or asking to hear the other side of the story, whatever it may be; in fact, it’s optimistic to consider that there is always another side of the story, and that before we snap to judgment and blame, we might first try to learn more.

I love what Bill and Melinda Gates had to say in that quote above, because it’s part of my own philosophy of optimism. If we keep our eyes open for solutions rather than rushing to judgment, if we at least attempt solutions even in the face of the unsolvable, and if we seek to understand, we can connect and create space for the possibility of change.

I understand that we are not all optimists—that many people have lived through situations that make it patently hard to feel hopeful or positive about things again. Which is why I’m speaking to those of you who are like me, or could be—those of you who can indeed look to the future with hope; those who believe in trying to find new paths and alternatives. You can’t solve the suffering of the world, but you can help in small ways, in your own family, neighborhood or town.

Photo credit: Creative Commons License “Help” by Quinn Dombrowski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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