If we just worry about the big picture, we are powerless. So my secret is to start right away doing whatever little work I can do. I try to give joy to one person in the morning, and remove the suffering of one person in the afternoon. If you and your friends do not despise the small work, a million people will remove a lot of suffering.
-Sister Chan Khong
With another presidential campaign already underway, I was recently reflecting on the various political ideals I have heard since I started paying attention to politics at around middle-school age. Political idealism at its best can be a wonderful vision of what human society can be; indeed it has inspired many positive changes, even in my own lifetime. At times, I have felt passionate about certain big picture issues that led me to join protests or vote my conscience, but as Sister Chan Khong notes above, the big, idealistic view can leave us powerless to act day-to-day, in the morning and in the afternoon.
I have periodically wondered to myself, “Am I doing enough to benefit society?” The reality is that I am not a politician or an activist and I don’t have any desire to be. I will not be in history books as someone who started a revolution, championed a major social change, or saved lives. At times I have felt almost guilty about this, particularly when I am focused on the big picture. The older I get the more I realize that doing whatever little work I can do, as Sister says, is simpler, more practical, effective, and rewarding than espousing grand ideals.
There are countless ways to give to others, to contribute to human society. Most of them, in my experience, have occurred as Sister’s small work. The kindness I have received from others throughout my life, from teachers, family, friends, colleagues, bosses, and strangers has been more meaningful to me than any political ideal. If I have learned anything from receiving that kindness, it is that I have that same opportunity to give every day. A friend of mine asks in reflection every morning, “How can I be of service?” No matter what our profession, we can do this. The world needs painters, plumbers, accountants, lawyers, electricians, truck drivers, business women, and bricklayers and each of us has the capacity to make a positive difference to each other and how we treat each other every day.
As Alan Watts wrote in his book entitled The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are:
…peace can only be made by those who are peaceful, and love can be shown only by those who love. No work of love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.
So, if you are like me and sometimes find yourself asking if you are doing enough, consider the counsel of Sister and Mr. Watts, and look for opportunities to love and care for others now. If we can do that, we are doing more than enough; we are doing the small work that means something much, much bigger.