What is the sense of our small effort?

By Rich Harwood

Dorothy Day, the great Catholic activist, is someone I have been thinking about lately as our country’s turmoil persists and people’s sense of hope wanes. She once wrote, “People say, what good can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?”

While waiting to take the stage at one of my recent speaking tour events in Rockford, IL, a man turned to me and said, “I have never seen things this bad before in our country.” I hear this same refrain wherever I go these days.

The upheaval we’re experiencing—from a toxic public discourse to the airing of grievances to the gridlock on important issues—can feel overwhelming and make us feel so small. We can wonder, perhaps even worry, about the sense of our small efforts.

Day went on to say that “[We] cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.” She believed that our actions ripple out far beyond our imagination in all directions.

The Harwood Institute is currently undertaking a 30-year “impact study” of our work in communities all across the nation (and some overseas, too). I am struck by just how much change comes from initially small actions that unleash a much larger chain of events that produce real change. Much of this change could never have been predicted—it only emerged over time, one step after another.

You must see this kind of change occurring in your own work and life. These small steps often combine with steps taken by others and sometimes lead to even larger systemic change. We are seeing this, too, in our 30-year study.

I know that many of us can feel that our small efforts do not make sense in the face of the tumultuous times in which we live. Just turn on the news on any given day and it’s enough to make you want to go back to bed and pull the covers over your head.

But we don’t. You can’t. Neither can I. We must all keep going. We must always remember that our efforts ripple out in all directions and that we can never truly know who they will touch, what they will spark, how they will connect with the steps that others are taking. Do not succumb to whatever despair and disappointment you may feel these days. Rather, step forward, engage, and let your small actions ripple out in all directions.

This is how hope comes about.