Can A Single Person Make A Worthwhile Difference?

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Two dialectically opposed, prevailing theories are that large scale events (such as wars, famines, plagues, and so on) shape the course of history and, counterpoised, singular beings (like Napoleon Bonaparte, Henry Ford, Adolf Hitler, Mohandas Gandhi, etc.) do so. This, of course, is like arguing over which came first — the chicken or the egg, as happenings mold people and people can, largely, direct outcomes. Anyone doubting the interplay need only consider the experiences (including the ones involved in the teaching of parental values) that influenced the life defining choices of Hugo Chávez and George Bush, Jr.

In this vein, the options that individuals elect to take, in an irrevocable fashion, change the way that the future unfolds. Nothing would quite be the same without each and every one of us contributing whatever we foist into the world at large, regardless of whether these affect offspring or create change on some larger scale, as did the decision made by Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., when he gave the order to release Little Boy from the bowels of Enola Gay.

All the same, people often cannot calculate, in advance, the effects of their actions. Indeed, they sometimes never even hear of the results. Nonetheless, their endeavors can sometimes monumentally change a life or add momentum to a cause that, in the end, forces meaningful transformations into place.

As a case in point, an acquaintance of mine once met a psychiatrist at a social gathering. He became infuriated with her when, in response to his question about what she did with her life, she replied that, other than serving as a housewife, she was just a Girl Scout Leader. Consequently, she inquired as to the reason for his strong reaction. His answer goes as follows:

He had grown up in an extremely dysfunctional family – one with a physically abusive, alcoholic father and a mother, who was co-dependent. As a result, he didn’t even learn the correct method to use silverware as there were no mealtimes in his household. (Instead, everyone, when hungry, simply picked through the refrigerator for whatever food as might be there.) Moreover, he was always afraid of both of his parents and wasn’t at all sure about the ways that typical families functioned.

However, he joined the Boy Scouts at an early age and his troop leader taught him that civil behavior or civility represents the cornerstone of civilization. In addition, the instructor showed that there exists a need for realistic goals, fortitude and determination, proper table manners, self-esteem, altruism and much, much more. He even patiently taught the youngster the ways to conduct rapport during dining periods. Now, this might seem funny, but, in actuality, the child didn’t have a clue.

This backdrop in mind, the therapist went on to explain, to the astonished housewife, that he would either be dead or a junkie on skid row if it were not for this one person in his life — a guide, who, at a critical and desperate moment, showed him alternatives to his family’s destructive ways. Furthermore, he now has a lovely wife, two darling adopted daughters (as he didn’t want to perpetuate his own alcoholic tendencies via genetic endowment), a beautiful home and a thriving practice in which he aids alcoholics and drug abusers with deep, personal understanding of their compelling issues. This, he expansively laid out, was the supplemental outcome of his having been influenced at a critical time by the compassionate Scout Master.

He added that, people, especially, cannot see the indirect results of actions. For example, the Boy Scout Leader obliquely helped all of the patients that the psychiatrist aids. In other words, there is a ripple effect wherein one person aids another, who helps yet another and it all stems from original actions whose beginnings one cannot begin to see; for instance, who helped his Boy Scout Leader to develop into the adult that he’d become, and who helped that person prior to the Leader, and so on?

All of this in mind, the counselor concluded his description with a reminder that we NEVER know the sway that we have over others. Therefore, even in the smallest and (seemingly) most insignificant interactions with them can have huge, unimaginable outcomes. On account, it disturbed him when she’d sounded dismissive of her role.

Another case in point concerns human rights activists and their kin. Not everyone involved in these sorts of efforts have an easy time. Some even wind up in deeply tragic circumstances.

In relation, I had, as a young teen, the duty of trying to help Ben Chaney begin to get over his titanic rage at his brother having been killed while Freedom Riding. With my having known Andy Goodman, I found it very distressing to hear the “official” account in tandem with a publicly withheld version about the way in which Andy and his companions, including Ben’s brother, had expired. Even the subsequent investigation involved a purposefully falsified account.

For example, the parents of Andy Goodman, NOT the FBI, had put up the $10,000 to find information leading to the arrests in the case. (There’s nothing like greed for money to get a confederate to “squeal.”) Into the bargain, they gave that sum to the FBI to post as originating solely from the FBI in that the FBI director wanted it that way. (How magnanimous he must have appeared to many following the murder investigation!)

All considered, here’s the suppressed account: A sheriff and his redneck companions had pulled Michael Schwerner, Andy Goodman and James Chaney off the road with a police car so that the latter would comply due to the incident, initially, appearing like a legitimate matter of law. Then the official and his cronies tied the threesome to trees and offered Michael the chance to “redeem himself” by aiding them in bludgeoning and kicking James (the Black) until he breathed his last breath.

When he declined, they kicked and beat Michael until he died. Then they made the same offer to Andy, who also refused which, subsequently, resulted in his being, likewise, tortured to death just prior to the same outcome occurring to James. Afterward, their broken and bloodied remains were mixed with concrete and used to build a dam for a local farmer.

The summer after this incident, my father paid to have Ben, the younger brother of James, fly up from the South to spend a few months with my family in NY. The reason was that Ben’s mother, whose husband had died quite some time before, had been having a lot of difficulty with him and she needed time alone to get her affairs right after the death of James, and to deal with all of the related circumstances.

After he arrived to my family, I was charged with teaching Ben about social justice, pacifism, the history of passive resistance, restorative justice and other matters that my family thought could help him to heal and feel empowered rather than embittered… Well, it didn’t work in the short term as Ben, in his fury, almost made my family bankrupt due to certain actions that he carried out.

However, he, after jail time years later and a period of working for Black Power initiatives, ultimately became a minister in adulthood. Furthermore, James, Andy and Michael did manage to add force to a movement that eventually, in some ways, was effective to create a more just American society.

Although they didn’t, single handedly, destroy Jim Crow and other segregationist laws, they provided impetus for others to fight all the harder for change rather than have their deaths serve to promote cowardice to act and fear. So, despite that we still have a very long way to go in terms of bigotry and other social ills, actions such as theirs and even deeply heinous deaths can force transformations in crucial ways.

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Another illustration indicative that this is the case concerns Rudy Schultz, a Nazi camp survivor. After WW II ended, Rudy, one of the few who had survived in a particular work camp, found out that every single Jewish person in his region had been murdered. This group included his two children, wife, parents, siblings, their families, aunts and uncles along with their families, all friends not Gentile, neighbors and so on.

As a result of this traumatic outcome, he went through a long period of shock in which he was both dissociated and apathetic – almost floating through his days in a detached manner wherein he was void of feeling (amounting to a self-protective mechanism, no doubt). In such a fashion, he would wake up and think, “Normal people have breakfast at the start of the day.” So he would eat and, for a time, he carried out routines in such a robotic manner in that he always tried to imitate what he felt must be typical behavior for average people, but with no heart whatsoever in any undertakings.

Then (reminiscent of Kubler-Ross’s stages of dealing with death), he went through an outraged period in which he wanted to do to former Nazis (and their families) exactly what had been done to him in order to teach a “lesson.” Thus, he became determined to create a rather crude form of justice (equality) based on revenge and the infliction of comparable torment.

Eventually he evolved through this (and successive other phases) into a position in which he simply wanted to maximally and kindly serve others — period. Moreover, his rationale for this was quite straightforward.

It grew from his recognition that this is what he wanted in terms of treatment for himself and all the empathetic people who HAD helped him to grow out of his all-consuming apathy and bitter hatred, the latter of which he came to realize constituted a misery that, in turn, was preventing him from living a whole, decent and joyful life. He, also, started to realize that just because some matter is horrific (or even when merely unpleasant) does not mean that it does not have worth. Indeed, some of our worst moments can cause us to discover resources that we, else wise, would never develop, nor know could exist.

In other words, difficulties force us to grow if we remain open to doing so rather than lapsing into self-pity, indifference, a sense of helplessness (to prompt constructive change), wrath or other maladaptive responses. At the same time, the only way to promote justice and, otherwise, improve life entails one’s initiating those actions that render unto others whatever good one wants for oneself.

The rationale behind this stand is rather straightforward and goes like this: Because we are all interdependent in society, our quality of life is, ultimately, impinged upon by the surrounding milieu, even if so largely in a roundabout, subsidiary way. Consequently, people like Rudy deem that it is their duty to assist others, who have not had equitable opportunities and further life supportive outcomes through no fault of their own. Indeed, his providing uplift adds meaning to his life and he, indirectly, gains from having a more inspirational and intact social environment, too.

This general backdrop in mind, the battle between “good” and “evil” has always been going on since time immemorial. As such, we each have a choice to either cave into our baser reactions to wrongdoings by seeking vengeance as a way to “right the wrong” and find balance for a grievance done or we can decide to perpetuate a different pattern altogether, one that supports our desires to foster well being and support all the way around. Moreover, our taking the latter stance does not undercut the need for restorative justice involving restitution, amelioration, atonement and other means to rectify grievous harm. Instead, it strengthens it’s delivery!

Overall, it’s all rather simple and clear-cut while leading up to the Golden Rule (“Do onto others as you would have them do to you…”). When all’s said and done, this mandate, more than any other, has direct application and powerful outcomes. Certainly, its enactment does so regardless of whether one is a Nazi survivor, a Scout Leader, a Freedom Rider, or whatever else one brings to bear, from his past and present circumstances, to selected roles and daily discourse.

In the end, literally everything has values and principles as its foundation. As such, we, both through our actions and inactions, show what type of world we want to create and exist in. In this regard, it seems constructive to foster the awareness that everyone gains when working together to raise standards to improve quality of life across the board

When all’s said and done, I feel honored to have met the Girl Scout Leader, Rudy, Andy and so many additional individuals, who’ve immeasurably enriched my life. I am grateful that they’ve possessed the presence of mind and the unswerving Will to strive toward monumental impacts. Even if the world is still in dire straits in many regards, their deliberate choices have made a definite difference in countless ways. In this manner, their intentions support and represent the best that humanity can devise and bring to bear.

All in consideration, our relative position in the scheme of things, perhaps, can be summed up as being something like this:

Nullity Canceled

We are little grains of sand in an endless beach.
Our unique and relative placement is of no account.
Swept along by tides of time,
Flung and refined (with the rough edges removed)
By harsh unyielding winds of change,
We exist here on no grounds save that we simply are.

Set in an ordered sequence
That starkly negates any control or reason,
The cold driving rains that pummel,
The sunny skies that reflect gold into our sheen,
The dark nights that engulf us in starry brilliance
Mindlessly come and go of their own accord.

Nothing seems to count except these recurring passages.
They stand out to define our small finite singularity
As contrasted to the sweeping vastness
That they, in opposition, comprise.

Yet despite insignificance,
All that is done, had and become by one slight body
Holds consequence for a brief moment
And against all odds.
Each direction it bears against the residing nullity,
Alters everything else as it hurls through space.

So, each choice substantially matters
And weighs heavily as it tenaciously brushes up
In gritty defiance of the bleakly barren void.
One must select with care.

Sally Dugman is a writer in MA, USA.


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