Friday, January 17, 2014

Believe You Can Change the World

Earlier today I gave a presentation in front of a group of middle school students on my own experiences with mental illness. I read from a piece of paper whose contents I'd wished I'd memorized, my legs kept shaking throughout, and I wondered if I had a funny expression on my face. But they listened, and afterwards asked questions about my mental illness, and I ended up taking a group picture with them, wherein I wondered if I was able to smile properly.

During the group picture, one of the students, a young woman, came to me and told me that she also had depression, was diagnosed a few years prior, and how she appreciated what I had to say. At the end, she gave me a hug.

It's very easy to be cynical of the world, and to be cynical of one's ability to change it. Certainly mental illness doesn't help, so willing is it to suffocate any and all optimism. I recall I used to reject volunteering for charity and other helpful organizations, as I did not believe I could change the world with my own contributions.

What does a hug mean? Part of me is akin to dismiss it, to come up with a variety of reasons why the hug means nothing, or that it was insincere. I use such techniques a lot. When I'm given compliments about what I do, there is a part of me that believes they are lying, or that they are simply trying to make me feel better. That is depression trying to keep me as close to unhappy as it can.

In the end, I have no way of knowing if they are sincere or not. But as I receive more and more positive comments, and positive reactions, it becomes increasingly unlikely that I can attribute all, or even most of them, to some attempt to placate me. I must be doing something good. I must be making some change.

We live in a very cynical world. We are surrounded by media which insists on showing us the worst of everything, which seeks to worry us with stories of regional instability and frightening world politics, of horrific crimes performed and of people with good intentions enacting very bad results. It's easy to see all of that and be skeptical of our ability to change the world.

But then that hug.

The world is made up of people. People like you and me. They have hopes and dreams and fears and vulnerabilities, even if they don't always show it. They make mistakes like we do, and they all have their stories and tragedies, uniquely personal to them. For them, life is hard, just as it is for us. Some of then want to be helped. But they may not know where to find it, or there is no one reaching out to them, or not reaching out to them enough.

We can help with that. It does even have to be anything large, it can be as simple as donating money to a charity. It can be volunteering a few hours of time to some organization. It doesn't have to be every day, or even frequently. It's astonishing how much a little bit of help can go.

I was there for less than an hour. There were twenty to thirty students in that class. One of them told me how much they appreciated it. Suppose there were others who also appreciated it but did not say anything? Suppose some did not appreciate it, but that my presence there nonetheless made some difference in how they thought about the mentally ill? Suppose a hundred other possibilities. And that was in less than an hour.

It's very easy to think that the world can't be changed. But remember that the world is made up of people. And each of those people has their own spectrum of experiences and struggles. For them that's everything. For them that is the world. Perhaps you can't change the world. But you can change theirs.

I'm not saying you need to go out and devote all of your time to volunteer. I'm not saying you need to give away all your money to charity. I'm not saying you need to do anything.

But don't believe for a moment that you can't enact change. Very often, we can do more than we think.

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