In T.S. Eliot’s 1925 poem “The Hollow Men” he writes, “this is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper.” The quote is dark but timely as the world staggers into 2022 with little aplomb and even less hope.
2021 was a hard year — “unprecedented” as politicians and newspapers reminded us umpteen times — and full of fear that maybe things won’t get better, or even back to normal. Maybe we will never be in precedented times again. Maybe this is the beginning of the whimpering end.
Just think — the pandemic still lingers, the people of Afghanistan face an unimaginable humanitarian crisis, inflation is rising, reproductive rights are eroding, people are burning, choking and drowning as the environment slowly crumbles, and those in power do nothing.
2021 was scary. 2021 was sad. And for myself and many others, it was a year that hammered home a feeling of bitter, deep helplessness that is also pervading 2022.
What can I do to save elderly people dying of COVID-19, people with families that loved them and tried so hard to keep them safe? What can I do for the more than 3000,000 Americans in solitary confinement, staring at cement walls for years on end, aching for their babies or their mothers or the ocean or the stars? What can I do to stop the teenager who killed four children on a sunny December morning in eastern Michigan?
Nothing, of course. There is nothing I can do to meaningfully change the world. My plight must be familiar to many young college students. We have such big dreams — to eradicate war and racism, to vanquish oil companies — whose invasive fracking is polluting the environment. But if the nightmare of 2021 did one thing, it was to crush the impassioned fantasies of myself and my peers — perhaps even permanently.
So, what can we do instead?
We can fall into despair. We can decide that our power is so slight, our impact so little, that there’s no point in even trying. We can turn off news notifications and roll our eyes at Instagram activism pages and forget election dates and accept that nothing we do really matters and stop caring at all.
If that sounds accusatory, it isn’t. I’ve done all that and more. Apathy often stems from despair, and despair is difficult to overcome because it’s usually supported by reality. Even if I try to do good, to recycle or get vaccinated, nothing seems to change anyway. Why bother?
But my faith provides me with another idea. St. Therese, a beloved saint in the Catholic Church, has taught me to look at my apparent weakness in a different light. No, I cannot save the world single handedly, but I can practice what St. Therese named “The Little Way” — a method of achieving good through profound simplicity. Others can practice this method too.
We can recommend books that made us look at the world in a way we never did before. “It changed my life,” we can say. “Maybe it will change yours.”
We can wear a mask, even if we’re boosted and want to finally show off our nose rings.
We can educate kids about what they see in the news or on TikTok. To our little sisters or the boy we babysit, we can say, “the world doesn’t have to be this way. Keep learning, keep questioning — it will matter. It’s cringe, I know, but you are the future.”
We can boycott Kellogg Company until the people who feed us are granted salaries that allow them to feed their own families.
We can bear witness to suffering. We can spread awareness about atrocities happening across the world, always remembering that there is no such thing as other people’s children, that we all belong to each other.
And when all that can be said and done has been said and done, we can pray. We can turn our faces to the sun, listen to the wind whisper and the birds sing and beg God for peace and justice and healing.
Doing this won’t ease all the sorrows of our fallen world. It won’t change the minds of despots or reunite families separated by borders and loss. But although it’s trite, little things do matter and they build up over time. One changed mind leads to one vote cast, electing one better politician and passing a bill that will help someone, somewhere. Even one life made more free and joyous and safe is worth everything in the world.
So in 2022, I will be following The Little Way. I will allow myself to rest and cry, but I will also remind myself of these words from the Talmud — “do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief…you are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Albeit in everyday, small ways, I will not abandon my dreams of changing the world. I humbly welcome everyone to do the same.