"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

What’s the most good we can do – and is there even any point in bothering?

Your efforts are just a drop in the ocean, insignificant in the context of a global population where the majority do relatively little to make a difference, and those that do barely make a dent in redressing the global imbalance.

What difference can one person really make in the grand scheme of things?

The cynical retort and the rhetorical question of someone whose mind is closed to the possibility of change because change requires a conscious decision to reject the status quo at an individual level, to alter the way we live, the things we do, the habits we cling to, all the things with which we desperately stake our claim on this planet.

It’s also the kind of thinking that holds a lot of people back from acting on the moral imperative to do something about the injustices that are unavoidably apparent to us all.

And yet, every year, millions of people do volunteer their time, helping others who are often strangers in situations that are socially, politically and culturally challenging.

Why? Why would anyone want to forsake their time, energy and resources for the sake of a cause other than their own, especially when they have the comforts and luxuries afforded by the so-called developed world? 

As part of a recent commission, I had the chance to speak to some remarkable people to ask them precisely that, people who have put their lives repeatedly on hold to devote their time to community projects with organisations including Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).  In other words, people who demonstrate what social psychologists call “prosocial behaviour”, a form of “sustained helping without obligation”.

One interviewee’s comment struck me in particular. An 82-year-old grandmother of 11, who started volunteering when she was 62, said:

“You have one life, it’s your responsibility to make it count”.

What made her all the more remarkable is that her own life has been far from easy.  Adopted in the 1950s, she lost her adoptive mother as a teenager, then travelled to London alone to pursue an acting career that didn’t work out, she married, and remarried, only to lose her second husband, she had been something of a “failure” at school and yet all the while, her response wasn’t to be bitter and resentful, but to keep going, to keep thinking what she could do to change her lot and in the process, help others.

Other volunteers of various ages and backgrounds recalled similar experiences, talking of the desire to make a difference, to do something useful with the skills and time they had, to redress the socio-political imbalances that like most of us, they witnessed, but like the admirable minority, were compelled to actually do something about. 

It’s fair to say that several admitted their ambitions were not entirely altruistic. For some, volunteering gave them skills that furthered their careers – but those careers were largely in the voluntary sector, working on participatory initiatives in countries where there was a recognised need (rather than a politically imposed intervention) for greater inclusivity in education, for instance.

They realised that the most they could do was to start small, at the individual level.

The power of change

According to Aldous Huxley, in his 1946 series of essays ‘Ends and Means’, in which he discusses various approaches to social reform, this is precisely where change has to start, at the individual level. But individuals are hard to persuade when they are so attached to satisfying their own needs, to “bodily sensations and lusts”, to “power and possessions”.

Huxley, persuaded by the ideas contained in the philosophy of transcendentalism and the Buddhist approach to cultivating a meaningful life beyond the trappings of the physical world (samsara), called for the practice of non-attachment as a means to liberating oneself from societal norms that blatantly wreak havoc at an individual and universal level.

Non-attachment as a route to charity, to courage, to the cultivation of intelligence and “an intensely positive attitude towards the world” whereby we no longer place ourselves at the centre of the universe, or rather if we do, it’s a starting point, not the means to an end in itself of self-gratification.

Huxley was talking about social and economic reform and contemplating the state of a global society in which war and conflict prevail, which moved him to ask:

“What sort of a world is this in which men aspire to good and yet so frequently achieve evil? What is the sense and the point of the whole affair?”

The perennial desire for world peace, Huxley said, could never be actualised unless at the individual level, we make a decision to “profoundly modify” our obsession with money and power and attachment. Huxley also noted that while the individual is the instigator, it takes movements, agencies and organised groups to harness the potential of the collective to create the possibility of change.

As another interviewee commented: “Volunteering shows you the power of change through possibility.”

In a 2002 piece for Project Syndicate, the philosopher Peter Singer wrote: “We tend to think of charity as something that is morally optional – good to do, but not wrong to fail to do”, his argument being that when we know so much about the obscene chasm that is the global divide in wealth and resource – and who cannot know when in this age of information overload, the evidence is everywhere – it’s morally reprehensible if we fail to give even a fraction of what we can relatively afford.

At the time of his piece, he wrote that the World Bank had estimated that in order to meet the UN’s then stated goal of halving the number of people living in poverty by 2015, it would cost $40-60bn per year, none of which had been forthcoming from the world’s governments at the time.

Singer noted that given the population of the developed world stood at 900m people, 600m of them adults, it would only take a donation of $100 per adult per year for the subsequent 15 years to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.  For someone earning the then average salary in the developed world of $27,500, that would equate to less than 0.4% of annual income, or less than 1% out of every $2 earned.

An undeniably persuasive argument that the most good we can do need only be very little, and that little matters a lot.

As another interviewee told me, you can’t change the world but “you can do your millimetre. That’s all. If everyone did millimetres it would make the world different.”

What's the root of our suffering and is it possible to escape the carousel of despair?

Pushed to the limits of our being