Insights come from random conversations — that is, if one reflects on them. Last week I was chatting with a nephew I meet only rarely and, unlike many intergenerational conversations, this one ventured out of the usual polite pleasantries into the risky terrain of politics, morality, and ethics. The young man spoke of the dilemmas of his generation, many of whom are bothered by the state of the world, and are confused about what to do about it. Some are beset by a sense of helplessness. Some end up burying themselves in social media and streamed content, emerging only now and then to order a meal through an app on their smart phones or make a restless run to the gym. Others look for ways to make the best of it by focusing on a career that takes them into a comfortable zone where they are shielded from these inconvenient truths. A few throw themselves into the good fight, taking up jobs that to their minds “make a difference” in some way. And the rest try to face the contradictions of this messy world, seeking opportunities where they can balance personal gain with public good.
“Do you really need to rush off to a war zone or to remote villages to do good work?” asked my nephew. “What about doing something in your own backyard, or neighbourhood, that could help someone?”
We went on to talk about how values are applied along a continuum, from the way we live our personal lives to how we conduct ourselves in public and in our work (and I have talked about this before). Our ideas about the world also can be applied across contexts, and we can in many ways do the kinds of things that will lead to change. Compassion, for instance, does not have to be expressed only by doing relief work in a disaster area, or by working to help street children — although, these are urgent and necessary activities that need as many resources as they can get. Compassion can also be about spending 10 minutes with a lonely elder, or stepping aside for someone who seems to be in a hurry, or taking the time to help a classmate who is having trouble with a lesson. Fighting the big climate change battle need not be about becoming an environmental scientist or joining protests against cutting trees, but also by not taking that plastic straw when you re ordering a soda, or turning off the fan and lights when you are the last one to leave the classroom. Believing in gender equity is as much about sharing all manner of tasks at home and reflecting upon your habitual responses as it is about signing petitions and carrying placards.
Many of us want desperately to do something that “makes a difference” (a tired phrase that refuses to lose its appeal), and we think we have failed if we don’t achieve the big goals. We end up placing less value on the small acts that make our immediate surroundings better, or bring pleasure and comfort to the people around us. But as that conversation reminded me, our values, beliefs, and ideas need to find expression not just in the academic and professional spaces we inhabit but also in the small ways we live our lives, every day.
The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. email@example.com