It’s easy to look out at the world and despair, to ask what point there is in donating to nonprofits, voting, protesting, calling your elected officials, writing Op-Eds. There is no shortage of anecdotes and pithy quotes to rebut that feeling, of course. The West African proverb: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent the night with a mosquito.” Margaret Mead’s oft-cited “Never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can change the world…” The story about a father and son throwing starfish back into the sea: when the father complains that there are tens of thousands of starfish, so what difference can they be making, the son tosses another and says “It made a difference to that one!”
If we accept that it’s possible for one person to make a positive difference, though, we must accept that the same is true in the negative. Evidence of this abounds. During the run up to the war in Iraq, in 2003, I participated in countless protests, yet it was clear that it was only a matter of time before the bombs began to fall. And I remember asking myself what it would take for me to have as much impact on the world as Bin Laden had had on 9/11–not for evil but for good? Why, I wanted to know, could Al Qaeda unleash a set of events that I not only deplored, I couldn’t stop? What made them more powerful than me, or people like me–people who wanted us to not pursue vengeance but something else, to take the moment of global unity in the wake of 9/11 and use it to build a new world order based on cooperation?
It turns out to be much easier to burn something to the ground than to build it up. Which isn’t to say that Bin Laden or Hamas are not methodical. On the contrary, the planning involved in 9/11, or Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, is staggering. It is, however, to say that if one wants to change the course of history and doesn’t care in which direction, one would be well-advised to pick up a rocket-propelled grenade rather than a pen to write a good piece of policy, or a shovel for the ceremonial groundbreaking of a community health center. The problem isn’t just the ease with which modern weaponry can kill, maime, or destroy. The problem is that societies are terrible at reacting to evil acts in ways that are rational, measured, or logical (how the War on Terror actually ended up serving American interests is, at best, unclear).
On September 14, 2001, as the ruins of the World Trade Center were still smoldering, Congress met to debate the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, a bill so broad that many were concerned it would give Bush and future presidents carte blanche to wage war, with little oversight. Despite these concerns, the bill passed on September 18, by a vote of 98-0 in the Senate and 420 – 1 in the House. The sole no vote was from Representative Barbara Lee, of California, who at the time said “Only the most foolish and the most callous would not understand the grief that has really gripped our people and millions across the world… Yet, I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States.” Rep. Lee was proven, in the end, to be right. I imagine many of those who voted in favor of the AUMF knew she was right but felt they had no choice but to go along with things–because they feared being voted out of office or called cowards, or thought they could rescind or modify the bill later. Others, stunned and hurt and angry, wanted revenge and voted to give the president legal cover to exact it. What followed were two decades of misadventure costing trillions of dollars, millions of lives, and strengthening Iran, destabilizing Syria, creating ISIS, and weakening our democracy, among many negative outcomes.
Sometimes the most we can do is to say no. No I will not buy from or invest in this company. No I will not support this policy or candidate. No I will not succumb to blind rage. No I will not get off this bus. No I will not unchain myself from this bulldozer so that it can clear a forest. But No is not enough. I often note that nothing good exists in the man-made world by accident–not a park, an after-school program, a well-run public-transit system, a children’s museum, a unit of affordable housing. Good is not the absence of evil but the presence of love, of ideas, of hope. And good can only take root if it is built, brick-by-brick, the way a building is. The answer to despair, then, is, first to acknowledge it; second, to say no to what despair wants of us–inaction, cynicism, anger, or just indifference; third, to find, develop, or improve upon a plan for the opposite of despair, which is positive action (put another way, to find something to say yes to); and, finally, to pick up a spade, a shovel, some mortar perhaps, and get to work.
Much of what keeps me up at night is well beyond my control. I cannot repel Putin’s forces from Ukraine, or stop the approval of yet another LNG terminal in the midst of a climate crisis, or bring peace and stability to Haiti or the Middle East: horror is among us and may well remain ever so. I am limited to the tools before me–words, money, arguments, votes, ideas, my body, the nonprofit I founded and run. It is to the tools at our disposal we must turn, over and over, in good times and bad. They are all we have. They may not even be enough, either to make a difference or provide a good answer to that nagging question: What’s the point? But God, there is no feeling like stepping back to admire something you built, you made, you created. A poem, an essay, a piece of pottery, an idea turned into an action plan, an organization–these are the things we make that can be beautiful, that future archeologists may unearth and say, Ah, it wasn’t all madness back then.