07 June 2008

Light Killing Ducks

Dear World,

You are a strange place.

Today, Muhammad Yunus shook my hand. And reached out and grabbed my shoulders in a friendly, chummy way. Twice.

I've now got a severe case of happiness-zinging-through-veins.

Wouldn't it be awesome to be able to make people happy just by touching them?

Yunus is a Nobel Peace Prize winner who founded Grameen Bank, which lends small amounts of money to impoverished people (mostly women) with no collateral. Microcredit. What a simple, revolutionary idea. Grameen has loaned over 6 billion dollars to over 7 million people since its inception and inspired numerous similar institutions such as Kiva.org.

In other words, he is a god. And he also happens to be friendly and charming and warm and...he shook my hand.

But really, he's just a person. And it's stunning to think that any hero is just a person who tried hard until they broke through.

Which brings us back to the impact that an individual can have.

Thanks a ton for the comments to my last post --I read them all immediately, and I've been rolling your thoughts around in my head for the past couple of months.

I wrestle a ton with the individual-vs-societal good and the impact-vs-pain questions. I have very scientifically concluded that INDIVIDUALS MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Change happens when individuals are audacious enough to think they can make a dent. Yunus started with the goal of trying to assist one poor person every day, and it was through talking to poor people that he came up with the idea for Grameen bank.

That being said, I also fervently believe in a high quality of life, and it's pretty hard to enjoy life when I'm fretting over every friggin detail. For example, it doesn't make sense to cry over every paper plate I throw away. Paper plates are not going to destroy the world. Their overall impact is rather low. Choose your battles, right? I'd much rather think of clever ways to cut out cars from my life than drag along my own dishware everywhere I go. Actually...umm...that doesn't sound like such a bad idea after all...

....because the second part is to reframe what "high quality life" means. Okay, this will sound super dorky, but I've been reframing annoying painful things as challenges. For example, I'm now an avid trashcan fisher for recyclables. I'm shameless about reaching into trashcans to rescue aluminum cans. I used to be slightly uncomfortable about it (won't people think I'm weird?) but then somehow it became twisted into a little challenge to prove to myself how brave I am about bucking social norms. (Hahaha, oh man, I'm such a rebel...I warned you it was dorky!)

Is pulling cans from the trash going to save the world? Um, no. But maybe one or two other people will see me do it and be inspired pull a can out of the next trashcan they walk by...and then we'll all be beaten to shreds by the homeless people who make an income from collecting recyclables in shopping carts.

Ahem. In any case, my rules are 1) Choose your battles and 2) Make your battles fun, which brings us to: 3) Vote with your money.

Every cent I spend, I'm telling corporations, businesses, NGOs, non-profits, etc. how I think the world should be run. (**beep**beep** Warning: extreme eco-puritan chatter follows.) I refuse to eat chocolate that isn't fair trade because of the rampant child slave labor involved in harvesting chocolate. It's hard to turn down chocolate, I'll admit, and at first I wasn't enthused about spending an extra couple of bucks on fair trade chocolate bars. But now I think of it as voting. If I buy a cheap chocolate bar, it's like someone bribing me to agree that child slave labor is okay. If I buy a fair trade one, that's $2 of voting for chocolate companies that I think are doing the right thing. Not only does the extra $2 buy chocolate and a vote, it also buys an ego-trip and a sense of self-righteousness. That's $2 well spent.

Consequently, I've also started giving more of my money away. Little bits at a time, maybe $25 a go when I get pleas from Amnesty International, Avaaz.org, or the Obama campaign. I'm a penny-pinching curmudgeon, so this is a huge step for me. It makes me feel like an awesome person to reach for my debit card instead of the delete button. Maybe they'll spend my entire donation on sodas and paper plates for an office party where all the cans end up in the trash. Regardless, I really think these groups are working to make fundamental change in the world, and I like believing that I'm part of an expansive network of people who also chip in little bits to create a roaring vortex of cash.

Individuals make a difference. Sometimes making bold change is about one little change at a time. And being obscenely stubborn.


Sean said...

I've had a lot of "idols are actually just people" moments since moving to the bay area. It's confusing that it's both depressing and empowering all at the same time.

Mel said...

Echo Sean, and add "terrifying" to the list of paradoxical adjectives describing a "heroes are people!" realization.

The terrifying part (for me, at least) comes in when the thought of "but if they're people, and I'm a person, then maybe - maybe other people could someday be thinking about me the same waaaAAAUGHHHH!!!" I have a fervent wish to remain just-a-person. You seem to handle herohood far better than I do (yep, you've got a bit of it gleaming off you already).

Also, you are far more courageous than I am in voting with your money. I picked a different side of the balance - living as cheaply as possible (even if this means getting non-fair-trade food, buying clothes that aren't certified sweatshop free, etc.) and using the resultant reduced need for me to have money in order to work for very little or no money (or negative money, when I sponsor my own projects and the people who work on them with me) on things I love and think will do good, instead of opting for a fatter paycheck working on something I don't think will be as influential.

Hm. Maybe that's not so different after all, except the battlefields we swing our swords at are different.

And I just had to say this: you express joy in a very unique way. Your outbursts of happiness always leave me happy because your descriptions of things that make you smile contain so much of /you/ within them that I can't help but grin like a maniac when I imagine Yunus shaking your hand.

Please keep being an awesome individual person. Your individual person impact ripples out to a great number of individual people. As one of those people who's been fortunate enough to be exposed to your Awesomeness, thank you. It makes a difference.

Chris said...

Audacity is an individual believing he can make a difference. I like that =)

Good call on the power of money. I've been becoming more and more conscious of what message I send with what I spend. It does sting a little sometimes and make me feel guilty other times (when I don't buy organic/local/etc), but I'd rather be consciously slightly uncomfortable than unconsciously blissful.

Your clarity helps my clarity immensely. Thanks!