I’m horrible with plants. When my sister called and told me she was building an herb garden to grow her own seasoning, I wanted to try it too. She was setting it up in her mud room by the window and talking about the amount of sunlight and the exact watering measurements she needed. I started daydreaming out loud about where I could fit a little garden by a window in our house. The upstairs office, I decided, would be the best place.
But then my sister just started laughing.
Every spare corner in that office is full of bags, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, dolls, clutches, scarves and other products made by Burmese refugees. I started working with these artisans a few years ago and slowly as our work has grown, our little social business has taken over that room.
My sister told me not to start a garden.
It’s so funny—we’re each so passionate about different things. You can tell by how those passions have fill the corners and freezers and garages in our home. The same is true for most of my other friends. We have many of the same values and concerns about the world. We worry about injustice, oppression, privilege, cruelty to animals, cruelty to children, global warming. We want to buy ethical clothing and leave less of a carbon footprint. We want to have purpose in their lives and make a difference to their friends and neighbors.
To put it simply, we want to change the world.
I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot lately, “changing the world,” because I read it often on blogs I read. It seems so vast, so unreachable, and yet so utterly desirable. How does a person change the world exactly? Does anyone ever wake up the day after some big event, some legislation that’s passed or some book that is published, and say to themselves, “Phew! Goal accomplished! I finally changed the world!”
And yet, like most of the people I love, I genuinely do want to make changes.
I want to end extreme poverty.
I want to stop global warming.
I want to prevent rape.
I want to end child slavery.
I want to empower women.
I want to educate children.
I want to provide a living wage for artists and dreamers.
I want farmers to produce good, healthy food.
I want to ensure that children always have a good home: ideally with their biological families and then, if that’s not possible, through adoption.
I want my friends and neighbors to know they are not alone, that they are loved.
Alone, I can’t do most of those things. So I find myself collapsing under what could be a crushing guilt if I let it. I don’t buy fair trade chocolate like I should. I shop for my kids at Old Navy and Target. I’m not vegan. I don’t buy local vegetables from a farmer’s market. I haven’t started an outreach program in the mountains in Peru or opened a school for women in the Congo or started an after-school program for HIV+ kids in Thailand. I don’t have an herb garden or a compost pile or even a tomato plant.
I sometimes compare myself to my friends and to bloggers I read and people I’ve heard of. When I do that, I always find myself lacking. My chances of changing my corner, much less the world, seems so minimal.
And I know I’m not alone. I’ve had so many conversations where we keep repeating this basic idea: “Yeah, I’m doing this, but I’m not doing THAT. And THAT is so much more important!”
(It doesn’t help that I compare the worst of myself the least attractive parts of my life with the best, most cleaned-up versions I can imagine of other people’s lives.)
But I’ve realized talking to my sister and my friends that in a short and busy life, I only have time to choose a few things that I can really do. And if I’m doing my things, which I’m uniquely interested and qualified to do, and my friends choose their things, the fight against injustice can be fought well and boldly on a thousand small fronts.
My sister Jocelyn makes ethical choices every day as a vegetarian and a locavore and creates friendships over really good cooking, often seasoned with herbs from her little garden.
My friend Christiana lives in an intentional community where her kids see their dad harvesting the strawberries they eat and their mom growing the veggies they preserve.
My friend Ann left everything behind to bring peace and good news to a tiny, tiny town in Thailand and spends every day with wildly different people with whom she is building a new community brick by brick.
My friend Amy homeschools her girls in a beautiful but simple home where her rich and poor friends feel equally welcome because her generosity and her hospitality make it an oasis of peace.
My friend Holly has adjusted her eating habits based on the (often conflicting) special diets of TWO of her children and teaches her kids to take the unexpected sides of life in stride with a lot of humor.
My friend Constance, in addition to a full-time job, makes herself available to anyone who needs her, whether it’s sex trafficking advocacy groups or local gardening efforts or refugee families.
My friend Caren puts up with my idiosyncrasies and my crazy ideas and inspires me every. blessed. day. with her clarity and wisdom and strength as we weave together a community of Burmese artisans in Austin.
By choice or by circumstance or by passion, these friends have worked to make a difference for the people and the causes they care about. When faced with injustice and fear, instead of lamenting what I’m not doing, I think the answer is to celebrate what we’re each uniquely capable of doing. Alone I can’t do everything. Together, with a thousand intentional choices working in harmony, we might just change the world.
J.R. Goudeau is the Executive Director and co-founder of Hill Country Hill Tribers, as well as a grad student in English literature. When she’s supposed to be working on her dissertation, she can usually be found writing about books, babies and Burmese refugees at loveiswhatyoudo.com or on twitter.