There is plenty wrong with the world at the moment. (There always has been. I tend to find this comforting; you may not.) And much of it is the big stuff, the kind that needs big solutions. Bigger than me.
The actions that I can take are small. There is very little that I can control, and not much more that I can influence in any meaningful way. And yet I keep taking small actions. Not as many, or as often, as I’d like to. But some. Why?
I am one, but I am one of many.
I work for a trade union, so it’s perhaps easier for me to remember this than it is for some others. It does help, working with people who share many of my values and many of my ideals. We don’t always agree on the best way to achieve change, or even what a particular change should look like. It can be a slog: there’s an awful lot to do. But every so often we manage to change something for the better, something we wouldn’t have managed on our own.
My brother tells me that the reason he stopped flying was that I stopped flying. (And the reason that I stopped flying was that I read a news article – well over a decade ago now, since I haven’t flown since 2007 – about some bishop or other giving up flying.) We have more influence than we think we do. Not much more, perhaps. But some.
It can affect the big stuff.
In this category I’d place things like writing to my MP. If it’s just me writing to her, she probably isn’t going to act on it. If tens or hundreds of her constituents do, she’s more likely to. She might still not do it. But at least I’ve made it that little bit more difficult for her to tell herself she’s doing what her constituents want.
Maybe I’d put things like buying fair trade under this header, too. The 30p difference between the fair trade option and the not fair trade option doesn’t make much difference to me, and it probably doesn’t make much difference to the farmer either. But across millions of customers and thousands of farmers it adds up.
It made a difference to that starfish.
Have you heard that story? I came across it when I was just old enough to get the point and just young enough not to find it unbearably cheesy. Some small actions do make a big impact, depending on the perspective you’re looking from.
Picking up three pieces of litter doesn’t do much about the great Pacific garbage patch (which in any case is mostly made of fishing nets, not plastic straws, please stop banning plastic straws), but it can make a path look visibly more attractive; and if I’ve put one can in the bin then that’s one hazard taken out of the way of the local wildlife.
It made a difference to me.
In my office most of the doors are decorated with the sort of quotations that are usually described as ‘inspirational’. (I avoid the word ‘inspirational’ where possible, but it’s probably the appropriate one here.) One of them is from Joan Baez, one of the few artists I have gone out of my way to see live, and it says: Action is the antidote to despair. I mention this one – I remember this one, in contrast to all the other doors in the building – because in my experience it is true. I am very prone to despair. It seems to come along for the ride with depression, whether as cause or symptom I’m not sure. And yet doing something (a tiny something: taking the compost out, telling somebody they’ve dropped their ticket, passing on some unwanted plates to a neighbour who does want them) has a disproportionately cheering effect. Assuming I can get that far in the first place.
It helps me. Does it help anyone or anything else? If I’m honest, if I’m at the point where I’m worrying about that, I’m not actually in a place where I care.
I just do.
Do something (or don’t do something) for long enough, and it shades into sheer habit. My mother has been boycotting Nestlé since the early nineties; consequently, there’s a whole shelf of chocolate bars that I just don’t see. Does that make any difference to Nestlé’s bottom line? Well, no, because I was never their customer to start with. It’s just habit now. It doesn’t really make any difference to me, either. I’ll have a dark Chocolate Orange, if I can find one. (Do they even still make them?)
Because I am a person who does this.
This is where it can get deeply philosophical. How far is what I am determined by what I do?
I don’t always. Up until yesterday, I hadn’t written to my MP about anything for months. For all I know she was wondering if I’ve died or moved away. Now she knows I haven’t. And that I feel strongly enough about the Elections Bill to tell her how strongly I feel about it.
Choosing hope, and choosing hope by taking an action, over and over again, becomes at once a symbolic and a physical act of resistance. It becomes almost a praxis, an observance. For me, it’s an outworking of my religious faith, but I don’t think it has to be. Challenging my natural propensity for gloom changes the world – or, at least, the world I live in. And that’s the only world that I can do anything about.