Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and social activist once said that as he grew older he came to understand that it was not ideas that changed the world, but simple gestures of love given to the people around you, and sometimes to those you feel most at odds with. He wrote that in order to save the world, you must serve the people in your life. “You gradually struggle less and less for an idea,” Merton wrote, “and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”
Over the past few months my activity has revolved around my sister’s illness and her treatment and family. I had thought maybe my world would feel smaller as I stopped traveling and speaking as much as I usually do, as I scaled back at work, as I said “no” to invitations and events. But the opposite is true. My world is bigger than ever, if love is the measuring stick. When ego is the measuring the stick, the world never feels big enough. But love makes big from small.
I am not saying we should abandon all efforts to save the world, or to find purpose in work, or to flex our creativity and unique gifts. I’m saying that so much of what we think will bring us happiness and help others ends up being just a lot of noise. I’m trying, in my own life, to filter out the noise and listen for the deeper song. It’s hard! The culture is noisy. I also have my parents living in my head, closer to me now that they are no longer alive. Their message—when they were alive and now from the other side—is always the same: Save the world! Do the good work! Speak up for the less fortunate, protect the environment, rage against injustice. I have spent much of my life trying to “save the world,” and I am proud of some of the ways in which my work has brought solace to others. But lo and behold, it’s being present for family, friends and coworkers that seems to make the most difference. If each of us did that; if each of us put love in charge of our life in all our relationships—the fun ones, the sweet ones, the thorny ones, the unforgiven and unforgiving ones—we’d save this world, one by one.
~Elizabeth Lesser (author of Broken Open), Facebook post – June 22, 2013