Global change begins with transformed heart

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 1, 2003

Last week I ended with a quote from Gandhi: "In a gentle way you can shake the world." I was responding to a reader who questioned whether "singular acts of kindness" locally could possibly make any difference globally.

Clearly, many of you have strong opinions about this. From Manitoba came this response from a Presbyterian minister:

YOUR LAST COLUMN was particularly good. Systems theory tells us that we live in a non-linear world, where small actions can have large effects. The "Butterfly Effect" – a butterfly flapping its wings in Thailand can cause a tornado in Texas – also applies to random acts of kindness.
—Frank Breisch, Winnipeg

INDEED, in the jargon of Butterfly-Effect thinking, life on the large scale does bear a "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" on the small scale. It is precisely this effect, I believe, that underlies a response from a retired coffee companion living near Toronto:

WE CAN'T ALL be lifesavers, and worrying about a situation without doing something positive about it can only bring stress and illness to the worrier. I have to turn away from the scenes on TV, so tragic. I also can't stand to watch and hear the politicians go on about how they are fixing things in Iraq, when they caused the mess in the first place. I know my thinking is very simplistic, but in order to live I must take the simpler way, doing what I can for family, friends, and neighbors – even self – who are in need, one person at a time, and perhaps the ripple effect will do some good in the long run. One can't turn away from the needs of community close by because one is incensed over the world's sickness. Bless Mike O'Rielly, Leslie Davies and Gandhi! And you, for putting it all together so well!
—Thelma Rhynas, Ajax, Ontario

YES, SAYS our next coffee companion, through the ripple effect of small individual actions good may well result for the many, but sometimes great deeds are also required:

IN MY OPINION, little kindnesses and gentle deeds do good exponentially beyond their own intent. On the other hand, I believe there must also be great and sacrificial deeds to accomplish great tasks and heal deep wounds.

In the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy, for instance, Moses exhorts the children of Israel, before they enter the Promised Land, to remember to tithe their bounty not only for the Lord's house, but also for the poor in the land. God repeats this over and over. Small deeds are vital, but big chunks of consistent giving – such as a tithe and other gifts, like cancelling debts every seven years and celebrating the Year of Jubilee every 50 years – are required so that the alien, the widow and the orphan can rejoice with everyone else.

Of course, in the New Testament, it gets even more demanding: laying down our lives for each other.
—Debbie Faulkner, Calgary

THE CONSENSUS around Cochrane coffee houses this past week was much the same: even great changes have their roots, as in the Butterfly Effect, in simple, individual actions. And no one believed the world would be changed into a more compassionate, caring place without individual acts of kindness. Social activism by itself, so I was hearing, is no substitute for graciousness within the daily encounters of our ordinary lives.

That seems to be the point being made in a note that was slipped to me from one coffee shop patron:

"Can individual acts of kindness make a difference? In my most humble opinion, it's about the only thing that can. Humans have a capacity for great evil, but there is also great capacity for love and all the compassion and joy that entails. It is unlikely that the world will be changed into a more compassionate, caring place by political movements.

"It is the individual human heart that must be changed."

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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