Weight of the world


There's a joke that goes like this: The power in our relationship is shared fifty-fifty. I make all the small decisions – where we live and work, how we spend our money, where the children are educated; and my wife makes all the big decisions – whether to invade China, how to deal with child poverty, when to do the next moon shot...

We laugh because the 'big' decisions are clearly not decisions at all in the family context, so the wife is effectively sidelined. The humour highlights how powerless we can feel in the face of these world issues.

It's hard enough managing the 'small' decisions of daily life: our own well-being and that of friends and family, budgeting in uncertain times and trying to have a bit in reserve if we get ill or meet some other adversity. Many of us, especially in the small hours of a sleepless night, also feel the weight of world issues pressing down on us. For some the anxiety becomes debilitating and can tip into depression. Most of us find our own strategies to cope with the wider world as it's presented to us through various media.

Recently I've had some conversations along these lines. One friend listed the world problems that trouble her sleep and I could only agree they are dire: oppressed peoples, the destruction of academic freedom, campaigns she has been committed to for decades which have made little progress. I admitted that part of my strategy is to note the issues as I read or listen to world news and then to put them aside, with a compassionate thought for the victims. For someone who belongs to a religious tradition as my friend does there is the option of prayer which is a way of saying, 'I acknowledge your distress, I hope things will improve.' I also pointed out that my friend gives service to the community through her work and she added that her new role in stand up comedy is also healing for others through laughter.

Of course, there are organisations such as Amnesty International or Avaaz where we can sign a petition or make a donation. The main thing here, I feel, is to narrow my focus to a few issues I can really contribute to. I'm very grateful to those who set up effective organisations and channel my efforts to where they will have the most impact. I think of all the 'Dear Dictator' letters I've written for Amnesty over the years and I know some of their campaigns are successful because they do their research and share the results. There are people who have been freed from unfair imprisonment because of the collective, persistent pressure of many Amnesty letter writers.

My second conversation threw a different kind of light. This friend, who is not Māori himself, has put his energy into learning Te Reo Māori and sees it as the basis for justice and redressing old grievances in Aotearoa. As we talked, Te Reo became a framework for so many other issues because of its role in empowering Māori and demonstrating equality and respect.

It's about using our gifts however we can. Although I intended to volunteer my time in some organisation or other when I retired, I often find I'm using my skills and empathy with individual friends or family members as things come up in conversation. Over time, opportunities to make a contribution emerge.

At other times, I have to take care of myself by not confronting too many issues, by turning off the news and going for a walk, getting into the garden or having a gentle, meditative swim. There are sources of good news too, such as ActionStation who send out a monthly email detailing the success of their campaigns, and http://worldsbestnews.org/, a Danish site which posts success stories – today, it's about bans on single use plastic in the Pacific and cluster munitions in Eastern Europe.

I imagine the good that people do in the world linking up to spread well-being or as the Buddhists say, loving kindness to all beings. Albert Schweitzer, doctor, theologian, musician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, wrote of 'small goodnesses' and encouraged us to challenge categories which lead to stereotypes, to personalise our efforts and make genuine connections to create a better world. Quaker Rufus Jones wrote, 'I pin my hopes to quiet processes and small circles in which vital and transformative events take place.'

Let's do that.