Can I Really Change the World?
How one small act can trigger movement across generations.
It was the end of a long, difficult week, both personally and globally. I was almost ready to call it a day, light my Shabbat candles and let go. Then a friend texted me:
“Quick story from today: was out for a long bike ride, realized I forgot to sunscreen my arms and still had a long bike ahead. Approached a family to ask to use some sunscreen. Turns out they are on vacation in North America from France. We spoke in French for a few minutes – and I offered them support about the attack in France. I used the sunscreen, thanked them, and went on my way. I can’t change what’s going on in the world but I can establish a human connection with those around me.”
I smiled. I got it. A little bit of light in this darkness. I could have left it at that, responded with a smiley face and moved on. But something about her “I can’t change what’s going on” rubbed me the wrong way.
“Thank you for sharing. But I will challenge you: you CAN change what’s going on in the world. When you make connections with those around you. We don’t always see the spiritual effects – but we know they can be more real and lasting than what meets the eye. Go spread your light.”
I hit send.
But in the pause after sending that reply, I felt a rising sense of doubt. Could I really change what’s going on? So much darkness. So much pain. In the gulf between myself and the world I wondered what change I was really making.
I was reminded of another time, another darkness. My bubbie often shared the stories of her experience during the Holocaust. In the years since her passing I find myself recalling her words, trying to make sense of the messages hidden within the narrative. She shared a story about how she used a string. Caring for her dying father in the Lodz Ghetto, there was little she could do to ease his suffering. Nevertheless, she did everything in her power to tend to his needs, including scouring the streets for extra food after curfew, risking her own life. While she herself was hungry and tired to the bone, she did not want to miss a single chance to help him.
Unstoppable in her resolve, she described how every night she would tie a string around her father’s wrist. Then, she would take the end of that string and tie it around her own wrist. As she slept on the floor by his bed, his every move would move her as well. She would wake and care for him.
Her father died in the Lodz Ghetto, but her sense that they were connected carried her through the war and to the last days of her life.
When I think about that string, it was likely a few feet of flimsy thread woven together. I can only imagine it disappeared along with the lives of so many. But the link that was forged transcends the boundaries of time and space.
When the world seems like it is falling apart, our connections can appear tenuous. What can we actually accomplish through a few kind words? Who am I to strike up a conversation with that stranger in the grocery line? Who hasn’t found themselves standing on an island of doubt and fear? Anxiety is the enemy of connection. As long as the voice inside that shouts “what can I do?” is winning, we will remain frozen.
When we are linked one arm to another, the slightest movement triggers a reaction.
But there is another choice. I know that when my great grandfather woke in the night, my bubbie also stirred. It was automatic. When we are linked one arm to another, the slightest movement triggers a reaction. It does not take billboard-size actions or newspaper-worthy statements to affect change. It takes small human connections. A smile, a nod, taking a few minutes to really talk to each other.
I never met my great-grandfather. It has been many years since that string was in physical existence. But the imprint remains in this world. Most of the time the connections we make seem fleeting. We don’t always see their effects. But one small action can trigger movement across generations.
My friend replied to my message. Two simple words: “Challenge accepted.”
I, too, am accepting the challenge. To believe that seemingly small gestures, string-size-linkages, can form the strongest connections; that stepping out of fear and into conversation really can change what’s happening in the world.
My great grandfather may have stirred in the middle of a dark night over 70 years ago, but that connection has outlived his Nazi murderers. Sharing these words feels a little like that string. I am not 100% sure of how this story ends. There is still nighttime quality darkness in this world. But as long as I take the risk of telling this story, you might likewise be moved. And then, we are in it together. So here’s the question: will you accept the challenge?