How to Save the World, One Life at a Time

I’m no wiser than the next person, but maybe this how the healing happens: town by town, in library community rooms, chairs filled by neighbors, caring people who gather to listen to each other, to inspire each other to bold acts of kindness, to step up and participate.

This week, as part of Palisades Reads, five people who have stepped up boldly, shared their thoughts on a fundamental question asked in the novel Shelter Us:

What compels us to move beyond our comfort zone to help someone in need?
The answers we discerned:
  • The depth of the need
  • An internal moral compass pointing at compassion
  • The relatability of the suffering, whether from experience (“I have been there, too”) or imagination (“there but for the grace of God go I”)
  • The urgent desire to make something beautiful from tragedy
  • The Golden Rule

But how do we overcome a sense of helplessness, or not knowing where to start, to activate these ideals?

One common answer united our disparate group of panelists:


Fearless people run headlong into challenges that make others cower. They are willing to try something they’ve never done before. They do not need a recipe, a checklist, or a role model. Fearless people give themselves permission to try something new.

  • Fearlessness allowed husband and wife volunteers to welcome homeless youth to live in their home, get to know them as real people, and treat them like family.
  • Fearlessness allowed a grieving mother to create a comprehensive resource with worldwide reach for people grieving loss of a loved one.
  • Fearlessness allowed a community member to join with his neighbors to take concrete steps to help over 100 homeless individuals actually become housed.
  • Fearlessness allowed a woman who was shocked the first time she saw so many homeless kids on Venice Beach, to start taking care of them, doing what was needed — first handing out hygiene kits, now running a vibrant non-profit with massive community support that is helping these kids create their futures.   

Where does fearlessness come from?

Some people are born with it, though I think they are the exceptions.

Sometimes fearlessness comes from circumstance. Take Susan Whitmore, founder of Before the death of her only child, she was a spreadsheet-driven, meticulous, thriving-on-order law firm administrator. After tragedy knocked her to her knees, a middle-of-the-night epiphany that others were suffering like she was, transformed her. The urgent determination to create griefHaven had no room for fear.

Fearlessness finds us when we become passionately committed to any goal. When we get excited about something — usually bigger than ourselves — we make things happen. We get others involved. We live bigger and change the world.

Working with such vulnerable people, I imagine that you may sometimes feel despair. How do you deal with the heaviness of what you do?

Rachel Stich, Deputy Director of Safe Place for Youth, challenged the premise of my question, flipping it on its head. For her, being involved with an organization like Safe Place for Youth, where so many people united to help kids, was uplifting and filled her with hope.

But what about when the situation feels hopeless? Volunteer Marlene Rapkin described her mindset as a CASA volunteer for kids in foster care. “I don’t focus on the outcome. I focus on being with them in that moment, letting them know that someone really cares about them.”

Sometimes all you can offer is companionship. To someone who feels alone, that can feel like the whole world.

The closing question came as an eloquent lamentation about the times in which we live: How does anything get better in the midst of complacency? 

Who am I to say? I have had this same lament. I feel helpless and hopeless at times. And we are no different than our ancestors. So I turned back to the theme of the night, borrowed from Talmud and other traditions: when you save one life, it is as if you have saved the whole world.

We are each just one person. We do not need to set out to solve all the world’s problems. We can do what is in right front of us.

But first we must see what is right in front of us.

We cannot succumb to the temptation to close off, to retreat to the safety of our creature comforts, to let the scope of problems callous the surface of our hearts, though it hurts to be open to the pain in the world. Only with an open heart will we see what — or who — is right in front of us, will we see the person on the sidewalk as someone’s child, not something to step over or hurry past, averting our eyes.

It is enough to save one life.

And…you never know which act of kindness might be the one that sparks a conflagration. Just ask Rosa Parks, or young Greta Thunberg.

#saveonelifesavetheworld #everydayheroes #kindness #kindnessmatters

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