Everyone Can Do One Thing

In our graduate programs at the Institute for Humane Education, our graduate students watch quite a lot of videos. The films cover human rights, environmental preservation, animal protection, and cultural issues, and many – if not most – are difficult to sit through because they depict the grave problems we face in the world and the injustices that still need to be overcome. In order to teach about pressing global challenges and cruelties, we must understand them. In order to prepare youth to be conscientious choicemakers and engaged changemakers, we need to teach them about the challenges humans confront and the looming catastrophes we will face if we don’t act wisely. We cannot do this if we aren’t fully informed ourselves.

Yet, how can we remain hopeful, enthusiastic, positive, and optimistic if we continually expose ourselves to atrocities? This is one of the great paradoxes of being a humane educator. Currently, the new film series Half the Sky, based on the book of the same title by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, has been airing on PBS. It’s an extremely difficult film to watch. Chronicling the plight of brutalized and exploited girls and women in the world, there is little left unsaid or unseen. It is easy to watch this film and sink into despair and despondency. And for some of our humane education students this is a real danger.

And yet, as Somaly Mam, a child prostitute turned activist to stop sex trafficking and help girls who have been sold into prostitution, said in the film, “Everyone can do one thing.” If ever there was a person who could have fallen into permanent despair, here she is. Yet Somaly Mam is a paragon of determined energy, hopefulness, and action, beaming as she carries on work that exposes her to the most extreme cruelty and brutality perpetrated on children.

Everyone can do one thing. The trick is to discover what one thing one ought to do. We each have our specific concerns, our own special talents, the skills we’ve cultivated, and the things that bring us joy when we do them. Finding our “one thing” is a process of melding our concerns, talents, and passions, and discovering that sweet spot where they come together. When we do this, exposing ourselves to cruelties and atrocities is bearable, because we know we are making a difference. We are, through our actions, confirming Joan Baez' great realization: “Action is the antidote to despair.”

It’s crucial that we expose ourselves to the brutalities in the world and not turn away. It’s critical to see with our eyes what others have to endure with their bodies. It’s important, because if we don’t know, we can’t act. But just as important is that we find our one thing to do, so that our witnessing leads to positive change and leaves us empowered and joyful, not depressed and impotent. For humane educators, we bring our knowledge to others, preparing our students to be problem-solvers for a better world. There’s little as heartening as this.

~ Zoe

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDxConejo talk: "Solutionaries"
My TEDxDirigo talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach"
My TEDxYouth@BFS "Educating for Freedom"

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