Ever since the immensity of COVID-19 became clear in the middle of March, I have struggled with one question: What can I do to make a difference? Now it seems I am asking myself that same question, but not just about COVID. Over the summer, as masses of people protested the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other people of color who have faced racial violence, I have asked myself: what can I do? With thousands of acres of California and Oregon on fire, I ask myself: what can I do? When faced with the vitriol and partisanship within our nation and our Church, I ask myself: what can I do?
It is difficult, in the face of such chaos and disintegration, not to feel helpless or despondent. It is tempting to think that the only way to have an impact is to be a politician, government leader, healthcare worker, or billionaire. While surely these people can and do have an impact (for better or for worse), I am not any of those things. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t make a difference.
We often forget that these major events are the result of millions of smaller choices we make: not wearing a mask causes the further spread of COVID; staying silent about racial injustice perpetuates deadly systemic racism; guzzling gas and blithely eating red meat at every meal warms the Earth’s atmosphere, making the West coast’s infernos more likely and more frequent.
These small choices might feel inadequate; it’s not as immediately obvious what difference they make. But in the aggregate, they do have an impact. In light of this reality, I think a good motto for this time is “focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t.” I can’t spend a billion dollars in climate change research, but I can choose to drive less, to eat lower on the food change, and to consume less plastic. I can’t cure COVID or treat people suffering from the pandemic, but I can wear a mask faithfully. And I can’t single-handedly heal the gaping wound of racism in the United States, but I can educate myself and others about the reality of white privilege, racial violence, and by actively being anti-racist.
This motto, “focus on what you can do, not what you can’t,” is also helpful in my ministerial life.
When I think about the work I do for the North American Center for Marianist Studies (NACMS), which is to study and educate people about the Marianist charism and Marianist Founders, my work feels more urgent than ever before.
The Marianist Family (brothers, priests, sisters and laity) was founded after the biggest crisis Western Europe and the Roman Catholic Church had faced since the Reformation: the French Revolution. As a student of that time period, it is easy to see the parallels between their time and ours: the political and social upheaval, the ever-present reality of death from violence and hunger, the separation of lay Catholics from public worship and Church communion. But when I study what the Marianist Founders did when the French Revolution was over, I come back to the same realization: they focused on what they could do, not on what they couldn’t. They couldn't restore religious freedom in France, but they could gather people into small communities of faith to re-build the Church in small ways. They couldn’t eradicate poverty, but they could feed the poor in the way they were able. They couldn’t stop the violence, but they could practice peacemaking in their relationships.
Over the past six months, through Zoom and sometimes in-person (physically-distanced, with masks), I have been able to share the Marianist foundation story with a variety of people in the Marianist Family and in Marianist schools. My desire is that people hearing this story might be both challenged and consoled in this difficult time by those on whose shoulders we stand. I have asked them to reflect on the same question I often ask myself, but to do so from a place of hope and possibility, not of exasperation: “What can I do?”