Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Power of Small Steps

             I recently finished a belated reading of Samantha Power’s gripping and inspiring memoir, The Education of an Idealist. As she describes her tenure as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Power attempts to describe just how many crises exist in the world at one time, and how hard thousands of dedicated U.S. personnel work to address all of them.

            While describing the steps she tried to take for women’s rights around the world, Power mentions the Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team, which had been banned by the Taliban but had been able to get back together in 2011. Power writes that some men would yell at these women to get off the road, and some would even grab at the women while they rode past. When she spoke about these athletes, Power would ask her audience to think about the impression they left on others:

            “Imagine just for a minute what it must feel like to be a little girl from a rural town in Afghanistan – and to suddenly see those forty women, in a single file, flying down the road. To see something for the first time that you couldn’t have believed possible. Think about where your mind would go – about the shockwave that image would send through your system. Think what it would allow you to believe possible. You would never be able to think the same way again.”

            Like many people, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about all that’s been happening in Afghanistan in recent days. I pray for the people of this country, and I of course think about the women and girls, as well as those who are not Pashtun or Sunni, and those who worked alongside troops from the U.S. and other nations. I hope that those who wish to leave will have a flight out of the country and that those who wish to stay will experience more equality and equity than they did 20 years ago.

            There are so many aspects of these past few days to despair over, particularly with regard to concerns over human rights. Place all of this on top of the other despairs we’ve had in our lives and minds – the ever-evolving virus, our changing climate, debates over social justice, a polarized U.S., disagreements over the very nature of the truth – it has already felt like too much, and now we add in images of the Taliban in power again.

“Even committed, motivated people felt overwhelmed by the gravity of challenges in the world,” Samantha Power writes in her book, “from climate change to the refugee crisis to the global crackdown on human rights.” Power adds that she worried about people falling into a “doom loop” in which they’d choose to do nothing but despair because they couldn’t solve all these problems. But she adds, “Whenever my own thoughts about the state of the world headed toward a similarly bleak impasse, I would brainstorm with my team about how we might ‘shrink the change’ we hoped to see.”

            Power chose to adhere to the theory that big problems can be solved by a series of small solutions. Even when this takes years or even decades, small steps are made. A friend advised her, “The world is filled with broken places. Pick your battles, and go win some.”

            This week, as many eyes focus on Afghanistan, Power – who now serves as administrator of USAID – is working along with many others to provide relief to those devastated by the earthquake and storms in Haiti. Another crisis, with yet another nation in peril, and some are choosing to shrink the change, through whatever small solutions they can find.  

There are individual steps we all can take to help just a bit, to try and move the needle toward the greater good. In my own headspace, that is seeming like a better path than a doom loop.

            “People who care, act, and refuse to give up may not change the world,” Power writes, “but they can change many individual worlds.”