The Power of Half: One Family's Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back, by Salwen, Kevin
- ISBN: 9780547248066 | 0547248067
- Cover: Hardcover
- Copyright: 2/10/2010
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7 55 5 6 5 7 5 6 5
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better. It's not.
-_Dr. Seuss, The Lorax
t's flat-out awkward for two people to share a pair of sewing scissors among their ten right-hand fingers, but Hannah and the tribal chief are trying their best. After a few seconds of what looks like thumb wrestling, they evenly control the scissors' gray plastic handle, then carefully move toward the sky-blue ribbon stretched across the door in front of them.
Forget Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. This is the oddest couple I've ever seen: a grinning fifteen-year-old white American girl in her wicking REI khakis and an earnest seventyish African tribal chief in gold and brown ceremonial robes worn like a toga across his left shoulder. She speaks English and has come six thousand miles for this. He speaks the tribal language Twi, and I'm guessing he has never left the West African nation of Ghana, except for maybe a vacation journey to neighboring Togo or Burkina Faso.
Yet here they are, pairing up for the opening ceremony of this new hand-cranked corn mill. For all their differences, they share a goal of helping this rural community on its path out of poverty, the chief because these are his people and Hannah because she is so eager to make the world a little better that she has uprooted her family and pledged more than $800,000 to help villagers in a country she couldn't locate on a map a year ago.
Their eyes meet for a second, the chief's gray goatee and mostly bald head contrasting with Hannah's auburn hair, which falls to the middle of her back and is frizzing in the July West African heat. The chief is silent as Hannah quickly and quietly counts, “One, two, three.” Her plan is for them to squeeze the scissors at precisely the same time. As usual, Hannah is striving for fairness.
I am standing on the other side of the ribbon, swelling with pride in our daughter. For months we've been talking about moments just like this: How doing with a little less ourselves can improve the lives of people surviving on less than a dollar a day. How we can enable opportunity for African girls who otherwise would carry corn for hours, missing school while their parents work in the fields. How humble structures like this simple cinder-block building will keep more young women pursuing education, creating much better life options for themselves. Now that dream is happening right before my eyes. And Hannah, the girl who so often crawled into bed with my wife, Joan, and me when she was younger, is fully in charge, almost an adult in her own right.
Only an hour ago our family had arrived here in Abisu Number One, which we were thrilled to find on our very detailed, two-sided map of Ghana. Amazingly, in a country no bigger than the state of Oregon, we have spent two days visiting village after village too insignificant to be mapped. That said, Abisu Number One doesn't even get its own name, instead sharing it with nearby Abisu Number
But that's part of why this mill is such a big deal. If your community is too insignificant to merit its own name, you're not going to have the political muscle to get any resources. Forget rising to the top of the list for the food processor, school project, or health-care facility. In Abisu Number One's case, it hasn't received electricity or running water
As we emerged from our vehicles in Abisu Number One, Hannah, her brother, Joseph, Joan, and I might as well have been wearing neon arrows screaming “Look here!” Like it or not, we are the center of attention. We are the outsiders_-_not just people from somewhere else, but the most foreign people for miles, miles uncrossed by villagers who don't have transportation. Small children point. They call us obruni (white person) as they see what they've never seen before, people with pale skin. They want to touch us, shake our hands, feel our arms, understand whether we're
For our teenagers, it's a new world being the “other.” For all of Hannah's and Joseph's lives, they have been the majority: white kids in a mostly white world, English-speakers in an English-language society, a±uent in an a±uent community. Now we are the di¬erent ones, the ones with the name that the majority calls us.
“It was really awkward to be put in the spotlight and kind of frightening at first to be the odd one out,” Joseph told me later. “It gave me kind of a fish-out-of-water experience.” Our five-foot, ten-inch redhead was about to turn fourteen, so there was no shortage of awkwardness in his life, but it was impossible to deny how much he stood out as the white kid with braces (a dental procedure, coincidentally, that cost as much as this corn mill we're dedicating, about $6,000).
Hannah and the chief are poised at the ribbon, and she has reached the count of three. Snip, cheer, and the race is on.
Scores of cheering villagers sprint through the cut ribbon to the building's front door and pass under the hand-painted sign that announces the grandly and awkwardly named Improved Food Production and Security Program Food Processor. They are eager to see the mill, which will grind the corn used to make kenkey, a sticky, polenta-like food that serves as the staple for each day's meals.
I don't realize it, but Joan doesn't race in with me. Always the reflective one in our family, she pauses to ponder the ribbon now dangling outside the building's front door. Hannah and the chief had cut the strip almost perfectly in half. Half, Joan was thinking. How appropriate.
Inside the mill, a villager attaches the crank to the machine, which looks like a large supermarket meat grinder. One turn, a second turn, then the mill whirs to life. A cheer reverberates off the peach cinder-block walls and corrugated metal roof. Jubilant men and women grab handfuls of corn and toss them into the intake bin; others grab the powdery meal coming out the bottom and fling it into the air.
“The energy in the room was amazing,” Hannah later wrote in her diary. “I'd never seen people so happy, and especially for grain! Unbelievable.”
Not surprisingly, this moment had quite an impact on our fifteen-year-old. As Hannah told me later, “I couldn't believe that something taken completely for granted in our society could mean so much in another. We don't even realize the measures that these people go through to make huge changes in their community that seem insignificant in ours.”
She gets it! Is it parenting? Or are Joan and I finally catching up to what Hannah has long known_-_that our little band of four has the power to make a difference?
We're a long way from home in every way. It's not just that Ghana is across the Atlantic Ocean from where we live in Atlanta, Georgia. It's more a frame of mind.
I'll explain. I grew up in Brooklyn, the youngest of three children and the only boy in our Jewish family. My parents, as the expression goes, put the dys in dysfunctional, bitterly battling for years until they split for good when I was fourteen. My solution to all this was simple: just disappear. As I was graduating from high school, I figured a thousand miles was about far enough to leave the set of the real family feud behind. So I headed to Northwestern University, outside Chicago.
When I think back, charity was nowhere on my family's radar. I can't remember a single day of volunteering anywhere. I can't remember making any contributions, except the day in the 1960s when my family gave away an old winter coat to “a bum” (the common term back then) on the Bowery in lower Manhattan. For my mother, a desire to hold on to what she had wasn't surprising; having grown up as the daughter of an immigrant elevator operator and a piecework seamstress, she never felt comfortable giving anything away, even as she advanced to become a college professor.
My dad, the proverbial angry young man who aged into an angry old man, wasn't about to do the government's work. A lifelong socialist, he told me more than once, “There should be no need for charity. The government should take care of people's needs. Period.”
At Northwestern, Joan King was three years behind me, a freshman when I was a senior. She was unlike anyone I had ever met. Joan had grown up in the most stable, most normal, most Protestant household I could imagine. She was completely unethnic. Her grandparents weren't just American-born; the family had generations of history tilling the rich black soil of Iowa.
Joan's family perceived charity the way many middle-class Americans did in the '60s and '70s: take care of the family first, then the church. There was the UNICEF box at Halloween, the occasional project with the Boy Scouts. But in general the United Methodist Church's mission arm, UMCOR, would handle the good works with the family's contributions.
Behind our clearly different upbringings, Joan and I recognized kindred spirits. The kids of four teachers, we knew the value of education. And we were eager to build careers, snare promotions, upgrade our lifestyle.
After graduation I joined the Wall Street Journal, where I moved from entry-level copy editor to reporter to columnist, then to the Washington bureau to help cover the first Bush administration and then the Clinton administration. I flew on Air Force One, interviewed senators on the private Capitol subway, did the black-tie party scene with those
unnamed “senior administration officials.” Meanwhile, Joan was hired by the consulting firm that would become Accenture. There, through an intense work ethic and a good eye for smart mentors, Joan systematically knocked down the dominoes of projects and promotions as part of that second generation of successful businesswomen that came just after the trailblazers. She helped the state of Washington build a better tax system and New York City's Board of Elections become more efficient.
Almost imperceptibly we rushed into our Accumulation Years. You know them, don't you? You earn more, you live larger. The bigger house, the more spacious apartment. Then, of course, the stuff to adorn that growing space. There were nicer vacations_-_travel to Alaska, Bermuda, Italy. We bought our first pieces of original art, cashmere sweaters at Christmas. Spending money meant having fun; buying electronic equipment or jewelry for each other was a token of love.
During recessions we thought twice about how to spend, but those were mere pauses on the upward trajectory. The goal was always to upgrade.
On Labor Day in 1992, five years into our marriage, bald little Hannah was born at George Washington University Hospital in D.C. The teacher and writer Elizabeth Stone once called having a child a decision to “have your heart go walking outside your body.” At Hannah's birth, Joan burst into tears. As she said, “It was not until I looked into my daughter's little eyes that I realized how much my own mother loved me.” We quickly read a bunch of parenting books_-_Benjamin Spock, Penelope Leach, What to Expect in the First Year_-_looking for any information to make us better nurturers of this blob of protoplasm.
But as our hearts expanded, so did our spending. The car got larger: a nice Volvo replaced the Honda Accord. Our travel didn't stop either; we just took Hannah, who traveled to London and Paris on Joan's business trips before she was two. In her first passport photo, we had to prop Hannah up in her Hanna Andersson outfit to keep her from falling over.
The funny thing is, we never even thought much about our spending, especially once we started having kids. Who could skimp on them? Ours might have been an extreme case, but I'll bet you've had those moments, too, hurtling without much thought from one purchase to the next. A jacket, a better TV, new furniture for the kid's room_-_hey, isn't that why God created credit cards? For us, accumulation was just part of the job description, particularly during the economic good times.
We weren't trying to be obnoxious, consuming yuppies, we just were. This was the American Dream, wasn't it, to live better than your parents did? We were lucky to have everything we had, not because of inheritance or lottery but through a confluence of hard work, career dedication, and being in the right place at the right time. For instance, our comfort with spending grew in 1993 when Joan made partner at Accenture and our disposable income jumped again. To celebrate, I threw her a champagne-tasting party at our Washington townhouse.
The next year, 1994, we moved to Atlanta, and soon after came the even bigger move to the Dream House. With three full floors, 116 Peachtree Circle was one of Atlanta's gorgeous historic homes. Nearly one hundred years old, with soaring Corinthian columns, the house had originally been the home of the aptly named Rich family, builders of Atlanta's most successful homegrown department stores. Now we were movin' on up. This would be the perfect place to hold big parties and host events.
Joseph came along in 1994, and our family was complete. Two redheaded children with fair complexions, Hannah and Joseph were a perfect blend of Joan and me, with features that drew more from the Salwen side, coloring that honored the Kings.
Hannah and Joseph grew up with very different social personalities. Hannah always demanded to be with others. When she was about seven, she began to harbor fears that people close to her might die at any time, so when any of us left her, whether on a run to Kroger for milk, on a three-day business trip, or at the end of a phone call, she would close the conversation with a perky “Love you.” If the end came, “Love you” would be the last thing you'd heard from Hannah. Maybe a dozen times a day.
Joseph, in contrast, was so comfortable with himself that he rarely noticed when others left the room. But he loved to amuse people. One year for Halloween he decided to be a movie-theater carpet. We found a remnant piece of broadloom and cut a head hole in it, and he decorated it with chewed-up bubble gum, smooshed Milk Duds, glued-on popcorn, and torn tickets. Later that night, when he trick-or-treated, Joseph refused to tell people what he was, offering only a taunting little “Guess” when they asked. Probably 90 percent figured it out, which filled him with pride; he loved the game.
At times of disagreement, our family style was to confront issues head on. Years earlier Joan had brought into our marriage a “no sleeping until the argument is finished” rule; as a result, she and I resolved debates sometimes long into the night, but resolved they were.
We brought that into our parenting too. When Hannah was nine, a fear of dogs that had been percolating grew into a full-blown phobia. The first question she would ask when invited for a play date was a tension-filled “Do they have dogs?” We tried to reason with her, take her to friends who had calm pets, read her more books about animals. But Hannah's fear didn't subside. In the end, in Joan's typical “resolve the issue” fashion, we headed for the Humane Society to adopt a dog and brought home a border collie-ish mix named Maggie, who Hannah apprehensively decided was calm enough to deal with.
The girl and the dog formed a fragile truce. The first few days after we adopted Maggie, Hannah insisted that they remain on opposite sides of a closed door; when the dog came into the kitchen, Hannah perched on the counter, far from the potential licking and sniffing. But over the weeks and months, Hannah's fear of dogs subsided. She fed Maggie, and briefly petted her. As important, she began to visit pet-owning friends. Crisis averted.
It would have been difficult to differentiate us from other families. Two parents, two kids, nice house, dog. We worked hard, got our promotions, came home. There we pitched baseballs to Hannah and Joseph, did art projects, read books. Shopping for stuff expanded beyond buying what Joan and I desired to include what the kids “needed,” creating plenty of new opportunities for accumulation: batting and pitching instruction, acting camps, music lessons, travel teams. Like others we knew, we bought most things we wanted.
Don't get me wrong: money is not a bad thing. Far from it. But spend, spend, spend becomes a brutal way to raise kids; they start to believe that everything is replaceable or that everything costs the same amount. An ever-escalating standard of living becomes the New Normal, something they grow accustomed to.
When our kids were old enough to start school, we sent them to the Westminster Schools, one of Atlanta's elite private institutions. Boasting thirteen academic buildings and nine athletic fields on 180 acres in a±uent Buckhead, Westminster feels like a lovely college campus. Lexuses, Mercedes, and Lincolns idle in the carpool lanes as mothers wait in their tennis clothes, motors running to keep their BlackBerries charged and themselves comfortably air-conditioned.
You know the classic analogy: the devil appears on one shoulder, urging you to follow your base instincts; the angel on the other shoulder prods you to pass up temptation and keep your conscience clear. In our case, the devil urged us to buy more stuff as the angel prodded us to stop the madness and instill better values in our kids. In the carpool lane, the shoulder devil offered a steady stream of advice: Check out that Hummer. Join the private golf club. Ski at Beaver Creek. Look what those people have! I could almost hear the angel groan in disgust.
One Thursday when Joseph was in the third grade, we encountered a laughable new level. He had been invited to his buddy Thomas's grandfather's south Georgia “farm,” a former plantation where quail hunting was the centerpiece. Farm? Nothing like what Joan knew from her grandparents in Iowa, that's for sure. The day before the mother was to drive Joseph the three hours south, our phone rang. “Kevin, would you mind if we rode in my father's private plane down there? Dad is flying down there anyway, so we thought we'd hitch a ride with him.” While it was gracious of the mother to double-check with us, the cold, hard truth was this: Joseph was now jetting to play dates.
The British economist and businessman Charles Handy writes about keeping up with the Joneses in his book The Elephant and the Flea: “Life becomes a long-distance race that you cannot afford to quit, but also one that you can never win, because there is always someone ahead, always more to get.” Joan and I simply called it “the treadmill.” We created a lifestyle; then, just to keep up, we had to stay in motion. And like the automated treadmill, it had a built-in mechanism to keep it going. We'd never dream of going from power windows back to hand-cranked ones or leather seats to cloth. In fact, I couldn't remember any time we had done that in any facet of our lives_-_cars, houses, electronics, or musical instruments. Better, nicer, more became the New Normal.
All this comes with a cost, of course, and I'm not talking about the obvious financial price tag. Think about having to keep trading up professionally, fighting for that promotion or battling for that raise. The treadmill demands it. At Joan's firm, it was even baked into the system: under the “up or out” structure, anyone who didn't earn more partnership units switched from the fast track to an encouraged departure. It's easy to view just about everything through a financial prism, rationalizing along the way. (“What if I take this promotion three hundred miles away and see my family on weekends? It's only two years, and I can make fifteen thousand dollars more.”)
I love the perspective of my friend Mark Albion, a former Harvard Business School professor who helps people improve themselves and the world through responsible business. (Mark and I have talked often about parenting and debated the question, "Are we raising consumers or citizens?") For Mark, the battle to keep up with the Joneses can be translated into drug terms. “Success, power, money, and fame have the undoubted strength of the best of narcotics: they create a deep silence,” he explains in his newsletter, Making a Life, Making a Living. “It is certain that the material offers security. At least, for a while.”
But as with narcotics, this high is a path to nowhere. Consider this: research shows that nearly four times as many people who make over $75,000 a year feel that they need at least 50 percent more income to meet their needs as those making less than $30,000. Mark's conclusion? “Trading our life energy for it, we often forget the real cost of money.”
Looking back, I'm not sure Joan and I actually forgot the real cost of money. We never knew it, never gave it a thought.
We were on autopilot in our careers and personal lives.
In turn, consumerism began to affect Hannah and Joseph, whose New Normal was a disposable, trade-up society. When Joseph was twelve, his Little League Baseball All-Star team was on a roll, winning the district championship. They had won the Georgia state championship as eleven-year-olds and now had a chance to go back-to-back. But as his team moved into the state tourney, the boys had a problem: the Anderson Techzilla bats that many of our guys, including Joseph, had been swinging were often denting, so that the umpires removed them from games.
We could have used one of the other bats in the basement, which were older but perfectly good. But they weren't Techzillas, and our culture dictated that we provide the “best” for our kids. And our kids expected the “best.” No adjustment required. So one of the other dads on the team searched local distributors and bought five new bats at two hundred dollars each. Joseph's team promptly lost in the state finals. Season over, bats in the basement.
Who can blame kids? Of course they will emulate their parents' consumer behavior. (Feel bad, buy something!) Beyond that, by some estimates, kids are bombarded with as many as five thousand ad impressions each day, on billboards, TV, T-shirts, and anywhere else you can think of. “Our culture is working overtime to addict young people to spending, and the message is always this: if you just had one more thing, you'd be happy,” notes Nathan Dungan, the creator of Share Save Spend, a Minneapolis-based company that helps parents teach kids about financial responsibility.
I should make clear at this point that the angel on the shoulder was trying to fight back. Even as we had ramped up spending in our marriage, Joan and I had worked in the community, tutoring young readers and serving senior citizens. After Hannah was born, Joan took her along on deliveries of Meals on Wheels. Often the octogenarians ignored their box lunches but paused to hug the toddler in her Gap Kids outfits.
As we focused on our careers, Joan and I often took on service work for professional reasons. She ran her firm's United Way campaign, a nice visible assignment, and became the chairperson of Accenture's local foundation. She joined the Alexis de Tocqueville Society, a United Way group for annual givers of $10,000 or more. It was philanthropy as business mission.
Occasionally we would hunt for ways to involve our kids. For instance, when we began working on Habitat for Humanity houses, Joan and I would drag Hannah and Joseph to the dedications on the final Saturday. There they often found that the home-buyers had children their age. Joseph sometimes took a ball and played with the kids on the street, and afterward, on the drive home, we'd talk about similarities and differences. And like a lot of families, we used the rule of thirds for our kids' weekly allowance, requiring that equal parts be dropped into canisters for spending, saving, and giving to charity.
In short, we did more than many families, trying to find our center. But we were still a long way from being able to answer some really critical questions: What did our family stand for? What did we want to be_-_not do or have, but be? Now that I think of it, we didn't even ask those questions.
In fact, we were running so fast on the treadmill, we almost missed a huge clue. Amid the frenzy of a family life filled with work and kids' activities, an emotional storm was brewing within Hannah, and it nearly escaped Joan's and my notice.
At Westminster, the kids were part of the school's growing curriculum on service and philanthropy. The school had just created a program called Urban Edventure, in which the ninety or so students in Hannah's fifth grade volunteered for two days instead of attending classes, with a sleep-
over where they watched the movie Pay It Forward. The first day, Hannah worked at a downtown Atlanta restaurant and service program called Café 458. We would look back on that day as a true milestone.
Set in a two-story brick building near the King Center, Café 458 serves a gourmet brunch on weekends. It's not unusual to find Carolina pulled-pork eggs Benedict or Grand Marnier French toast on the Sunday menu. But the twist is that all the profit, even the tips for the volunteer servers, goes to fund a program that helps homeless men and women get back on a path to success. Most important for Hannah, there is a weekday meal program for the homeless in the same restaurant.
Café 458 was the pilot light for Hannah's fuel. After working during Urban Edventure, she came home full of life, reciting at dinner a quote from former congresswoman Shirley Chisholm that hung on the café wall: “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.” She asked if she could volunteer there again_-_not exactly an offer even a semiclueless parent could refuse. So once a week for several months the eleven-year-old Hannah prepared food and served lunch to homeless Atlantans trying to get their lives on track.
Now, instead of talking about friends or her teachers, many days Hannah came home bubbling with stories about the homeless people she had served at the café, especially Henry, a lonely man who always sat alone. “It's so sad, Dad. Nobody likes him, and he always sits at a table by him-
self,” she said. That, of course, just made Hannah want to stop by Henry's table even more frequently, offering him refills of water or iced tea from the clear plastic pitchers.
Looking back, Joan and I had undergone significant changes in our own focus on service, the most obvious being the career shifts we had made just a couple of years earlier. At Accenture, Joan had run the firm's national women's mentoring task force, helping younger women move through the promotion pipeline. But now, after twenty years at the firm, she recognized a serious problem. “It drives me nuts,” Joan told me. “Too many of the thirty-something women have never learned to enjoy taking risks or to advocate for themselves.” Her solution: she needed to reach women earlier_-_in other words, to teach school.
She sprang the concept on me during a walk around our leafy neighborhood in the fall of 2001. Her proposal was jarring, of course; it's hard to see a 95 percent pay cut as anything but. Sure, we had stock from an Accenture IPO, but the vagaries of the stock market were a tricky thing to rely on.
As we walked together along the oak-lined streets, Joan posed the million-dollar question (literally): “What if we run out of money?” My reaction was so quick it was almost thoughtless. After all, just a year earlier I'd had my own career shift, leaving the comfort of the Wall Street Journal after eighteen years to co-create a magazine company. I wasn't going to shoot her dream down, money or no money. I reminded her of our first apartment in New York, a one-bedroom measuring less than 700 square feet (or about one ninth of the Dream House). “We've lived with a lot less before,” I said. “I guess we would just do it again.”
So Joan earned a master's degree and soon signed on to teach seventh-grade English at the Atlanta Girls' School. Now she would have the opportunity to prepare girls to be more successful women.
Because of our job changes, Joan and I began to spend more time at home with the kids. But nothing about those career moves and our growing kids made things simpler. Whose lives are, anyhow? If there is anything that parents complain about more than anything else, it's busyness. But sadly, busy becomes the excuse for not doing the things that truly matter. The funny thing is, we all know that we're overbooked, too busy for quality time.
Each element of busy has a rationale. Our kids loved sports, and of course we couldn't skimp there, so we rushed them to lessons, camps, and teams. We were helping our kids; who couldn't justify that? Like lots of families, we figured we could make it up on vacations, trying to squeeze love and togetherness into a few weeks a year.
But we were losing our core. As Hannah and Joseph grew older and more independent, they naturally entered their own orbits, with Joan and me increasingly transforming into chauffeurs. Weekend trips to Lenox Mall were aimed at socializing with friends, movies became parent-free affairs, iPods blared in ears, DVDs provided the entertainment on car trips. Conversation rarely reached any significant depth. Our family was spinning into different galaxies.
Still, there were glimmers of hope. Through it all, the one constant was dinner, and come hell or high water we would eat together. Many nights we'd wait for Joseph to finish baseball practice and eat at eight. Or we'd throw him into the car, drive to where Hannah had a volleyball match in the northern suburbs, cheer her on, and grab pizza afterward. It might only be a twenty-minute gathering, but it was the centering event of our family day.
And there were the stories. From the time the kids were little, I loved sharing pieces from the newspaper or radio. Sometimes it was an article about new words being added to the dictionary. Other times it was a great inspiring tale. Hannah even picked up on the idea, reading aloud her favorite Chicken Soup for the Soul stories at the table. One story would lead to another; the more sappy and inspirational, the better.
One night at dinner I recalled a story from National Public Radio about the robbery at knifepoint of a New Yorker. The victim, Julio Diaz, described it like this:
He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, “Here you go.” As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you're going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”
The robber looked at his would-be victim, “like what's going on here?” Diaz says. “He asked me, 'Why are you doing this?'_”
Diaz replied: “If you're willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me ._._. hey, you're more than welcome.”
The teenager joined Diaz for the meal, and, after they ate, Diaz asked him for the knife, which the young man gave him. The piece concluded with Diaz saying, “I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It's as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”
When I finished, Joseph was silent, digesting the story. Hannah gasped: “Oh, that is amazing. It's so cool.”
I looked over at Joan, and I knew what she was thinking. Our minds were spinning with possibilities. The career changes. The volunteering. Hannah's enthusiasm. Maybe we're not hopeless, just on the wrong track.
Joan and I didn't know it at the time, but our teenaged girl would be the driver of that new train.
Believing You Can Make a Difference
About 111 women die of breast cancer every day in the
United States. A million teenagers get pregnant each year. Someone dies every thirty-one minutes because of drunken drivers. I'm not writing this to bum you out. But you might be thinking, There are so many problems, there's no way that I or any one person could solve anything.
When civil-rights activist Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a public bus in 1955, she never dreamed of the impact she would have on millions of lives. “I didn't have any idea just what my actions would bring about,” she said years later. “At the time I was arrested
I didn't know how the community would react.” The reason Ms.
Parks didn't get up is that she knew the racist laws were wrong.
Rosa Parks is just one of the thousands of influential people whose actions changed the views of many people today. Think about Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Greg Mortenson, John Woolman, Madame Curie (if you don't know them, check them out; they're all remarkable). Sometimes small acts significantly affect a large group of people. But even when they don't, they can have a big influence, maybe on just one individual.
So don't get discouraged because you can't solve a whole problem alone. As the British philosopher Edmund Burke said, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” I know exactly what he was talking about. Before
our family project I kept telling myself that no matter how hard I tried or how much money I gave, I would never be able to fully solve any of the world's big problems. When I worked at Café 458, the Atlanta restaurant for homeless men and women, I saw dozens of people come in looking depressed and lonely. But still I didn't see them as individuals, but instead as a group, “the homeless.”
Then one day at Café 458 I heard two homeless men talking about a college basketball game that I had watched with my dad the night before. I snapped to the realization that these people are people. How stupid and rude I had been to see them as different from me. I realize now that having that epiphany was a big step for me. In that split second of comprehension, I switched from seeing them
as a group of people to viewing them as individuals. When I started seeing people in need as individuals, the problem of homelessness and hunger seemed smaller and I felt like I could make more of a difference. I also started believing that I could help because the problem was on a personal level.
Think of a person from your community who inspires you. Look beyond his or her specific actions to the kind of qualities that person brings to work or volunteer activities. For example, some people are better at creating new programs than at actually putting them into action; other people are doers, ready to take someone else's ideas and run with them. Is that aunt in your family a problem-solver?
A good listener? An inspirer?
Now think about your strengths in the same light. If you took your best characteristics out into the world, how could you use them to make a difference? Are you patient? Maybe you would be a good tutor. Are you musical? Maybe you could be playing the guitar at a nursing home (and bringing your family along to sing_-_no talent required). We all have gifts the world can use.