“How wonderful it is that nobody needs to wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” ~ Anne Frank
Harold, my grandfather, was a bee keeper, a peach farmer, a gardener, a volunteer with the Amnesty International. He, like many radical pacifists, is someone who didn’t make a huge name for himself in the way we tend to think is most important. He did not get famous or make a lot of money. He was a quiet man who always seemed to be smiling. This inconspicuous way of living is something to admire and no less meaningful or impactful than those of us whose lives and words are booming in the daily news.
We used to visit my grandparents once or twice a year. One of my most vivid memories of these visits was arriving as Harold was mowing the lawn using an electric lawn mower; its cord snaking around the lawn to the electrical socket in the side of the house. We pulled in the driveway and just as my grandfather noticed our car, his body slightly convulsed and he jumped away from the mower. He had accidently run over the cord with the lawnmower and received ‘just a mild shock’. Unfazed, he came over and greeted us. He took us into the house and after we got settled, he went back outside. There, he wrapped silver duct tape around nicked rubber casing on a cord that was striped with other similar patches of tape. Why would one need a new cord if this one still worked perfectly fine? He was thrifty.
My siblings and I played Hungry Hippo and Crokonole in my grandparents’ basement. My grandfather would come down and clear the card table that was always covered in envelopes and sheets of paper. He was regularly hand-writing letters of protest to politicians, governments or letters of support for organizations like Amnesty International and the Red Cross. Then, signing a petition or supporting a cause took much more than the click of a button. There was a coin sorter on the unused bar top where he would sort the cans of money that he collected from locations around the city. The money would diligently be sent to the cause that was written neatly on the front of the can.
Trent Gillis wrote that “many of us get caught in this trap of thinking that our lives aren't of consequence because we're not extraordinary.” Sometimes, we strive for a kind of future success so that one day our life will have meaning, as if when that magical event happens we will finally be able to make a difference. If this is our way of thinking, we must question our constant yearning for a future self and instead, take Parker Palmer’s advice and ask “Given my small, ordinary, un-famous, and fleeting life, what can I do that’s of true worth and value?”
My grandparents rarely gave me Christmas presents in the form of toys or clothes or other stuff. Each year, they gave me a card with a pamphlet or a postcard of an organization they had sponsored in my name. A child who could now go to school, a family that owned a goat, a man who now had a pair of prescription glasses.
This was not fully appreciated as a child. But there was a small part of me that knew this gesture was far more important than any toy I would have preferred instead. I worry my son won’t see these same examples of such simple but profound activism. So much now is about more and fame and ‘big’ things. As I have gotten older, I recognize that these small choices, ones that my grandparents made daily, are not always easy. To make them is to resist the impulses within myself for complacency, shorts cuts, and laziness in order to remember that each action we take or not is important.
By all means, when a ruckus must be caused, cause it. When we must be loud, yell. When we strike upon those moments in life of worldly success, enjoy it. But, the underpinnings of social change can be quiet. It can be in each informed and conscious decision we make. It can be in where we put our money or where we do not, how we spend our time, and the intimate conversations we have in our homes.
Despite questioning it at times, I do have great hope that these quiet but dedicated forms of action like my grandparents are happening. It is just that we can’t always hear them or see them. But each action matters as a way to contribute to the growth of humanity even when we think no one is watching.