Issue 7 - November 2009     Back to newsletter

Start small

by Mirabai Bush

In this issue, we publish a further extract from Mirabai Bush's advice in Compassion in Action: Setting Out On the Path of Service (Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush, NY :Bell Tower, 1992). Her series of essays is prefaced with the following remarks:Once we begin to understand the path of action, we still have many practical steps to take in finding our way into appropriate service. We have to begin somewhere. And often the beginnings are confusing or difficult. Here is a guide into the world of service, a little help on the path, some suggestions to ease the entry, a handbook for compassion in action.

Small service is true service .. . The daisy, by the shadow that it casts, Protects the lingering dewdrop from the sun. William Wordsworth

It is becoming harder and harder to escape painful social realities such as hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, and drug abuse. If all we read is the daily newspaper, we still learn more than we have ever before known about the complex and long-lasting causes of poverty and prejudice. It has become easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the suffering and apathetic about the possibility of change. As long as we see suffering as an 'issue' or a monolithic social problem, such as homelessness, hunger or AIDS, we will find it difficult to act. The enormity of the suffering leaves us feeling dwarfed and powerless. And even a single person's pain may seem too big if we think of taking it on by ourselves.

Yet each of us can do something. Walking three miles to work won't heal the whole ozone layer, but it is something one person can do. And although we each can't do everything, together we can make a difference. Each of these bignesses is made up of many small parts. Individual people, sometimes working in groups. Individual moments. It is like the AIDS quilt, stitched together by the NAMES project. Each patch is small, personal, and hand-made. Each one reflects the person who made it and their friend, lover or child who died of AIDS. Each patch is different: sweet, sophisticated, loving, stylish, outrageous. Together they make an immense blanket of love, care, sadness and beauty.

Each small act is part of a great fabric. The AIDS quilt doesn't replace the need for government responsibility — it points to it. And it is interesting that the big problems are exactly the ones that may find their solutions in small, creative, offbeat, unlikely ideas.

There are opportunities everywhere. A hospice worker adjusts a patient's pillow, a taxidriver at the end of her shift drives a pregnant woman to the hospital, a shelter 'family' stands in a circle of silence before their meal, a development worker in Mexico keeps extra blankets in her apartment for visiting refugees. The small things carry a message of caring. They say that each one of us matters.

Amnesty International recruits volunteers to write letters to prisoners of conscience. It seems a small thing to do. A Moroccan prisoner wrote back: 'For us the letter is the outside, the forbidden! It increases hope to see, some day in the future, unknown strands, the world of our imperfect dreams, the world of the living.'

High school student Asha Nadkarni volunteered to 'visit mentally retarded adults in a state institution on their birthdays. She would take each patient a cupcake and a balloon. She reported, 'Meeting these people was discovering a purity found in most children and envied by most adults. . . . Perhaps the touch of someone young brightened their day. Maybe they went to bed at night a little happier than the night before.'

Small is, in fact, beautiful. Human-scale undertakings based on common sense are the most likely to succeed. As E.F. Schumacher said, 'Small-scale operations . . . are always less likely to be harmful than large scale ones. There is wisdom in smallness even if only on account of the smallness and patchiness of human knowledge.'

When Joanne Eccher and friends started the Hunger Hotline in Boston, their ambitious goals were to 'get different legislation passed and do advocacy work with food pantries and soup kitchens and do litigation work to raise welfare benefits and get food stamps expanded'. But when they met with the people in the community, they found that 'the first thing they wanted was rats and cockroaches out of their pantries. And the next thing they wanted was better food at their meals. And then vans and transportation. And I remember thinking, vans and transportation. We're just contributing to the charitable aspect. But after some time we realized that people's basic human needs had to be met and trust had to be established before they could begin to ask why they were in such a situation. We had to start with the small things before we could deal with the bigger issues.'

When we act, we can see our feelings of powerlessness dissolve. When we start small, we are more likely to remember that not only is it okay to be ourselves but in fact that is the most important thing. Start small, and give yourself a chance to find out. Begin alone, or begin with others, but keep it simple. And remember the words of Margaret Mead, who said, 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has.'

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