The idea that we, as individuals, can save the world seems to reek of at least a little bit of egoism. What kind of inflated sense of self-worth leads us to seriously believe that we have the power to affect radical change within the evolving complex web of geopolitical maneuverings and multifarious human interactions? Do we seriously believe that we can direct the powerful tide of history as it unfolds? But, despite the lack of logic and the insurmountable odds, humans are almost universally born with the understanding that we do make a difference. That something so innate is so at odds with the reality in which most of us live should give us at least a little bit of pause, and raise at least a few fundamental questions. If we do have this power, where does it come form? And, more importantly, why are so many of us failing to live up to the ideal of changing the world in any practical sense?
For all intents and purposes, the concept of universal change through mass paradigm shifts and the adoption of radical policy changes is altogether false. Practical change is not brought about by declarations and ideological posturing – no matter how radical they are. Real change comes about through the behavior and actions of individuals, through their idealistic embodiment and implementation of values and modes of conduct that contribute to the common good.
Take the Chabad movement as an example. People tend to speak of Chabad as a hegemonic, monolithic entity that controls thousands of emissaries throughout the world. In truth, Chabad is comprised of thousands of individual activists, each of whom is dedicated to actively implementing certain ideals – the joy of Judaism, brotherly love, a sense of community – in the geographic area in which they live. The fact that they are all bound together under the umbrella of Chabad is almost an afterthought; they are acting as individuals, each with a unique relationship to the Rebbe and a unique interpretation of how to best implement his vision in the service of their constituents. This is evidenced by the fact that the atmosphere and flavor of each Chabad center, along with the programs and services they offer, vary according to the needs of the community and the personality of the rabbi. It is the devotion and work of each of these individual activists, stemming from their sense of responsibility to the Jewish nation, that makes Chabad what it is – not some organizational behemoth headquartered in Brooklyn.
The seeds of change are not nurtured by hype and propaganda, and swearing passive, theoretical allegiance to one ideology or another; belonging or sympathizing to the anti-hunger coalition, while seemingly high-minded and progressive, will do little to alleviate the hunger of the homeless man down the street. But giving him a sandwich and a warm blanket in the winter could save his life. Befriending him and trying to address the cause of his suffering could change his life.
The only thing we assuage through universal proclamations and virtual reality subscriptions to high ideals is our own sense of guilt and responsibility. But nothing really changes unless we change. When we invest ourselves practically – in our thoughts, our words and, ultimately, our deeds – then the world changes much faster than we would think. By bringing peace into our minds, homes and relationships, it spreads to our communities and radiates to the world at large. By embracing and tolerating differences in our personal lives, we create an atmosphere of tolerance and respect in the world at large. If you have a room full of smelly people, no amount of brainwashing or shrewd hyperbole will eliminate the odor. If each person bathes, then the result will be a clean-smelling room. A world full of positive, free-thinking, open-minded, thriving people will result in an optimistic, free, open and prosperous world. Anything less would be uncivilized.