When it comes to the ability of the individual to make a difference in the world, most of us vacillate between disillusionment and idealism. There are moments when anything seems possible, but sometimes the world overwhelms us with its enormity and its power.
I thought that I had found a solution to this struggle on a community service trip in Kentucky last summer.
I spent the first few days in Kentucky doubting the relevance of the work that I was doing. I knew that my work would eventually make some sort of difference, even if marginal, but I found it difficult to grasp the impact of my efforts. By the end of the summer, though, when I saw the results of our group’s work, I felt as though I finally understood. I could see with my own eyes the outdoor classroom that we had built with our hands from start to finish. I listened to the gratitude of the parents of students we had worked with. At once, I understood the simple fact that had we not been there, these results would not have been achieved. I began to feel, with a strong sense of conviction, that the work of each individual is, in fact, valuable.
At the time, this realization felt like the end to any of my cynicism about an individual’s ability to have any real impact. However, as time passed and the potency with which I’d once felt this conviction began to dissipate, doubt returned. As I documented my community service efforts on my college application, I questioned whether they really meant anything. I put the words on the page, and they looked so small, so insignificant. Was I really making a difference? Is anyone?
The confusing contradiction of cynicism and idealism never seemed to resolve itself. In each moment of service, as I made some kind of positive effort, I understood that my attempts were significant. But as I thought about how very small the individual can be in relation to the greater issues of the world, I couldn’t help but feel a persistent uncertainty.
This struggle surfaced once again as I watched “A Place at the Table, ” a documentary about hunger in the United States screened by the University’s Hunger and Homelessness group. I was appalled by what I saw, and I felt compelled to do something, anything that I could to help in some way. At the same time, I was beginning to realize just how difficult it is to change a situation that is so extensive and complicated. I left the screening educated and frustrated, my thoughts about the power of the individual left somewhere between hopeful and unsure.
But when it comes to making a difference, maybe the middle is exactly where we should be. While it might be easier to choose one side or the other, this complex combination of doubt and hope enables each of us to understand our own place in the world. Doubt allows us to comprehend the depth of the issues that we face as young people engaged with the world around us. As we begin to understand our part in a much larger picture and to realize how much work there still is to be done, we are humbled.
But when doubt leads to inaction, when it paralyzes us from acting upon our desires to see change, it’s time to cast it aside. While our doubts may be important, hope does prevail. It drives us to test the boundaries of our own abilities and to achieve levels of progress that others before us may have thought to be impossible. Let’s not get too busy navigating the contradictions of idealism and doubt to remember to give the potential of the individual a chance. Otherwise, we may never know what we’re truly capable of.
Fattal is a member of the class of 2017.