The Virtue of Uselessness
As the hour approached for our Sunday worship service, I confess to being less than motivated. The announced topic was how to solve childhood hunger. It seems like an overwhelming problem in a sea of overwhelming problems. Sure, I’d like to eliminate childhood hunger. But I also feel passionate about systemic racism, voter suppression, defending U.S. Democracy, and saving the Earth from severe climate change. How could I concentrate on them all? And conversely, how could I pick one over the others for engagement.
As the service unfolded, a story was told which perfectly addressed my attitude. The author was Loren Eisley, an American anthropologist.
One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.
Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”
The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”
“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf.
Then, smiling at the man, he said…..“I made a difference for that one.”
The lesson stood out so clearly. Yes, childhood hunger is too big a problem to solve. Just like climate change, racism, and many other social justice problems, I can’t solve them. I can’t even make a dent in them. But breaking the huge problem into very small pieces, I can do things that are meaningful. And this can scale to macro progress when many people combine their actions.
Later in the service, our guest preacher, Rev. Kären Rasmussen, the Founder of “No Child Goes Hungry, Inc.”, referred to the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist faith:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person
Suddenly, this principle opened in my mind in a way that I had never considered before. I saw the starfish story and the First Unitarian Universalist Principle fit perfectly together. It’s so easy to get disillusioned when we look at the challenges facing our world today. Even with the best of intentions we can quickly become overwhelmed with our limited ability to help. It’s far too easy to just get tired and say to yourself, “this is useless. My actions won’t really matter”. The boy on the beach focuses our attention on a manageable scale, where we can make a difference. And by applying the logic of the First Principle with a focus on our actions rather than a person, we get a new principle that I think is worthy of inclusion in Unitarian Universalism or any other faith.
The inherent worth and dignity of every small act of kindness.
Whatever you do to aid another soul has inherent worth. Even if only symbolic, it is still important. But chances are it’s much more. When you give a dollar to a homeless person on the corner, you may help them that evening, but tomorrow and all their tomorrows they will need much more. Still, your dollar may assist beyond the small food item it helps them to purchase. It might just give them a glimmer of hope that there are good people in the world who care about them, at least to some degree. And perhaps it is the spark that keeps them going for another day, and another, as they turn away from dark thoughts of self-destruction. Perhaps your act is witnessed by another who is also motivated to give from your act of kindness. There is inherent worth in each of these small acts of kindness, even if it’s invisible at the moment. Doing the right thing is never useless.
In the coming days and weeks, when you give a dollar to the homeless, donate a dollar to the local food pantry, join a phone bank for voter registration, recycle your boxes and plastics, or attend a school board meeting and advocate the teaching of Critical Race Theory, take satisfaction in the inherent worth of your actions. These small things matter more than we know.