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WASHINGTON--Lately, I've been disappointed with the world. Disgusted, perhaps, is a better word.
I spent the month of June in Israel with a group from Harvard Hillel. Israel is so much a home to me that I cried with joy as our plane landed. But the tears came many more times before the flight home, tears instead of frustration and sadness. Not because of the hopelessness of the peace process, which is a legitimately difficult struggle that the country is bravely facing. Years of hatred do not quickly change into an era of love. But many of Israel's problems are completely invalid. Corruption dances through the government in a country theoretically founded on the values of justice and righteousness. Violence in the streets and poor education systems plague Israel just as they do many Western countries.
Even religiously, I was disappointed. Liberal forms of Judaism barely exist in Israel, and the choice of how to express religion becomes a sociological rather than theological question. For modern women, it's especially difficult, because there is no religious arena in which to voice their opinions. The choice is either moral silence in a religious world or religious silence in a secular world.
The smaller things made it even worse. Maybe the government would eventually get their act together, and maybe the religious struggles will be resolved. But when I watched little boys litter the sidewalks of Jerusalem with their gum wrappers or read another newspaper article about a traffic accident caused by reckless driving, I became very hopeless. What could be done to make changes at the individual level? And what could I really do to make a difference?
Upon my return to the United States, I found out that my hopeless feeling was not particular to Israel. I am working in Washington, capital of the "world's only superpower" (as one of our politicians said last week), and I wake up every morning to news listing how many people were shot the previous day. Our politicians are corrupt at all levels, and the current presidential election is between two men with both excessive money and familial ties to government.
Even at my job, the same immorality and materialism appear again and again. I read about biotechnology industry and the importance of maintaining the right to patent. "Were there no patents, who would really bother to do scientific research anyway?" asks the lobbyists. Money determines what we study, what we produce and to whom we listen.
Religion is no simpler in this country, either. The Hillel in Washington e-mail list has had many "happy hour" events but not one social action project. Sitting at Friday night dinner at the George Washington University Hillel with some other students, we spoke about our internships. Some worked at the White House, others at the Holocaust Museum or the American Israel Political Affairs Committee or National Hillel. Maybe, I thought, these people have the opportunities to work on a bigger scale than I do. Maybe their efforts can actually make a difference, while my picking up a gum wrapper from the streets of Jerusalem only makes room for the next one to be thrown. In fact, however, these interns seem to do even less than that. They sheepishly admitted to spending most of their day sending e-mail and Instant Messages.
Thus even in D.C., it was all feeling futile. "Vanity of vanities, it is all vanity," as Ecclesiastes laments. But the worst part, the worst part of it all, is that I felt I couldn't make a difference. Even if I were perfect (I'm far from it), and spent all my time and energy and resources on bettering the world, could I really make a dent in any of these problems?
I wish I could say one thing made a difference and restored my hope in humanity and in my ability to better it, but I cannot. However, the same things that had been the sources of my consternation brought me some relief in recent days.
Douglas R. Hofstadter wrote an essay about ants as a metaphor for how the brain works. Each individual neuron, or ant, has no understanding why it does what it does. It just fires every so often, or searches for food when it is hungry. But looking at this level makes it impossible to see the complexity at the higher level. Ant colonies move, grow and make decisions unfathomable to the individual ant much as our minds have a consciousness way beyond the power or influence of any one neuron. Our society is similar; much happens at a higher level that is independent of each one of us. Maybe I don't have to be president (or at least not wait until I am); maybe I can make a difference as a part of something bigger.
This thought encouraged me as I stood feeling useless at a rally for the ten Iranian Jews convicted for spying. I at first felt frustrated that even though the rally leaders spoke in support for all that President Clinton and his administration has done on behalf of these innocent men, yet they are still going to prison. But I began to recognize the impact of each person as a part of a larger group, of people across the country supporting a cause.
Hearing Ralph Nader speak was also amazingly motivating. Finally, a politician who cares about the poor, who wants to use American's wealth to help its people rather than to get richer, I thought. A vote for him could perhaps pave the way to real change in government.
At first, I though these little actions were futile; I could not believe that my small contributions--standing at a rally, voting for a third party candidate--would bring world peace. But some thinkers have encouraged me that those actions are the only way to start.
"It is not by going out for a demonstration against nuclear missiles that we can bring about peace," writes Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen master. "It is with our capacity of smiling, breathing, and being peace that we can make peace."
Hanh teaches that awareness of life and love for others are the way--and the only one--to bring peace to the world. He tries to smile at every person and to see the good even in what seems bad. It is difficult to believe that smiling at all people will make politicians less corrupt or that paying attention to my breath will stop the shootings in the inner city. But receding into my bedroom and rejecting my ability to make a difference cannot do anything at all. And as I explore philosophy and history, I find that many voices, not just Buddhism, teach the same lesson.
I spent Saturday reading philosophy instead of attending synagogue, and found that my tradition was unwilling to let me wallow in my meaninglessness. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the greatest Jewish philosopher of our time, was only one of the many voices insisting that we start with what we can. "The teaching of Judaism is the theology of the common deed," he wrote. Doing things can make a difference. Powerful changes are in fact only possible by immersing ourselves in the world and trying to take part. "Perhaps the essential teaching of Judaism is that in doing the finite we may perceive the infinite."
Most surprisingly, Washington also offers a cry to action. We make mistakes, it says, but we have the power to make a difference and we're going to continue to try to do so. The new Franklin D. Roosevelt monument contains many quotes. The following is relevant both for the whole nation and for each individual who makes up a part:
"The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith."
Shira H. Fischer '01, a Crimson executive, is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Kirkland House. After a month in Israel, she is now working in Washington at the National Academy of Sciences, and is trying to smile at as many people as she can.
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