Everything each person does has an impact, personal and planetary

This is the third in a series of eight posts detailing concepts and attitudes for sustainable personal change. As one would expect of someone maintaining a 155-pound loss for more than 20 years, my examples have to do with food and weight, but their point is to illustrate how anyone can achieve and maintain healthy change. Today’s concept: “It matters.”

Let’s start with the obvious question: “It?” And by it, I mean “everything.” Not in an anal-retentive way, not in a self-involved way, but what I do matters. 

I make this point because on a planet of 7 billion — and that’s only the humans — it’s easy to think that what I do, what any one person does, doesn’t matter. But that’s a misconception — regarding not only planetary change but personal change.

Consider the notion broadly first: Nelson Mandela did not end apartheid alone, and was not the only force behind South Africa’s coming together after it. But is not Africa and the world not substantially different because on this one man? How about Gandhi, who led a nation of 350 million out of colonialism peacefully, when foreign exploiters have been expelled from most parts of the world, including America, only through warfare? Clearly, one person makes a difference.

Oh sure, you might say, these were legendary figures, and I’m just one person. OK, me too. But I’m not talking about doing grand things, I’m just talking about doing things. Even if it’s only 1 7-billionth of human output, it’s still not nothing. To paraphrase what Sen. Everett Dirksen apparently never said, “a 7-billionth here, a 7-billionth there, and pretty soon it starts to add up.”

Another interpretation of the concept lies in the aphorism Gandhi also appears never to have said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Is being that change likely to be enough? Of course not. But every change has to begin somewhere, and if I can’t change what I control, how can I expect those changes to arise?

If this were only a planet-level thing, I’d consider it a tough sell, even though it’s entirely true. But perhaps the most fascinating facet of this set of ideas is that when you bring the principle down from planetary to personal, from 7 billion to 1, it doesn’t change: The actions I take matter, to me!

At first, that might seem simplistic, but I spent at least half my life making choices that I thought were immaterial to my wellbeing. My eating behavior is the gold-plated example, but also, I smoked cigarettes for a dozen years. I smoked marijuana every day that I had it for better than 15 years. I used far more cocaine than anyone ever should have. 

I frittered cumulative years away watching reruns of shows I shouldn’t have expended time on once, never mind again. I skipped, skimped, and coasted through college, and left after four years still needing two more course credits because I’d blown off easy work in my last semester.  

None of them are choices I would endorse today, and certainly none I’d want a loved one to make. If I’d had the perspective I have now, that what I do matters, I believe I’d have made different choices — better choices — more often. 

I say “more often” because even today, I’m not perfect by any definition. I still watch TV, or otherwise check out, sometimes. But here’s a way in which the newer perspective plays out: Sometimes, when I see a piece of trash on a sidewalk, I pick it up and place it in a bin.

Big deal, right? The wind will probably deposit a new piece by morning, and even if not, who’s going to notice one less piece of refuse in the world? More or less, I agree with that.

But here’s the thing: Consider what would happen if everyone did it? No trash, right? What if 1 in 2 did? 1 in 4? 1 in 10? Each of those eventualities would have an effect, and I suggest that that’s true right down to 1, period.

Ok, maybe it’s a little quixotic. But I’ve been doing it for more than 10 years, and I haven’t chucked it yet, despite having few clean streets to show for me efforts. But other benefits have accrued. First, there *is* less trash on the street, even if it’s not noticeable. 

Second, taking the action bolsters my self-esteem, at about the same rate the trash is receding, but still: Take a few actions designed to leave a person, or a place, better than you found it and see if you don’t feel good about it, too.

Third, I have found that change is, itself, a force for change. In the context of having my life transformed — 155 pounds lost, kept off more than 20 years; married with child, after not even having a girlfriend till age 36; published author, after being dormant at a writer for 15 years, etc. — street cleaning ranks low in the range. It wasn’t my first step toward change, and it wasn’t my last. But being open to possibilities, and looking for small ways to contribute, helps move me in healthy directions.

That’s enough for me, especially since I’ve found negligible downsides to it. But when I do it, I also have the chance to be influence others toward the change I want to see. The fact is, we are all role models: Who hasn’t altered a course or shifted dramatically as the result of what they saw someone else do? It could be stuff your Mom or Dad did, or it might just be some guy on the subway. It might be possible, or it might be that thing you’d *never* do.

Since, even as just one more schmo, I’m going to be a role model, I’d rather it be for something positive. Wouldn’t you?

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
make investments in employee wellbeing that pay off in corporate success.
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