How to Save the World

November 5, 2012

I was obsessed with saving the world.


In High School I would spend my spare time working at homeless shelters and soup kitchens. And I never would have said it at the time, but I hated every moment of it. But I felt I had to do it. I felt it was my mission.


I wouldn’t say I was very successful either. I didn’t feel I made a big difference at the organizations, and all the time I spent going door-to-door to find jobs for the homeless – I didn’t get a single one.


I felt a shift 10 years later when I volunteered at Miriam’s Kitchen for the early morning breakfast shifts. I learned how much chronic homelessness is connected to mental health. I had thought I could solve the problem at the level of food and work, when there was a much deeper story at play.


Catherine Crum, the Deputy Director, asked me to spend more time with a man named Carl. I sat down at his table, started talking, and the most interesting thing happened… Carl became my mentor. I would listen to his poetry, offer feedback and then he advised me on my life in a way that may have been psychic. I would barely say a word, but he would somehow know what what was going on and what I needed to hear.


I started to love volunteering at Miriam’s Kitchen, even though it was at five in the morning! I liked the other volunteers, and the clients would tell me their conspiracy theories over coffee and a newspaper, as I would hand out vitamins, cold medicine and toiletries.


I didn’t realize what was really happening to me until I read the work of Osho


“How to save others? Save yourself! The problem is inside. It projects it on the outside world…Don’t try to change anybody. Just change yourself. And it happens. When you change, many come to share you in your light. Share — but don’t try to save. Many will be saved that way.” – From Come Follow to You.


I laughed when I realized if I want to save the world, I need to save the world from ME! By projecting a state of brokenness onto the world, I had kept myself in guilt and pain during those high school years. And no one ended up benefiting.


Focus on changing yourself, and the world will change with you. Does this sound too selfish to be true?


I used to think so. Until I read a story about Mother Theresa’s Orphanage from Lynne Twist’s The Soul of Money:


“As I walked up the steps I saw a large piece of crumpled newspaper on the doorstep and I stooped to pick it up. There inside the crumpled mass I discovered a tiny baby, still breathing, still alive. She was a girl, a just-born and very tiny fragile little girl. I was shocked, and gently lifted her from her newspaper swaddling clothes and wrapped her carefully inside my shawl.


“Opening the wooden door, I stepped into a room lit by two lightbulbs dangling on wires from the ceiling… There were 39 cribs, each with one or two small babies inside. There were additional padded mats on the floor with more little babies… I handed the tiny infant girl to the nun who greeted me.”


This is where I had an awakening…


I thought that the nun would be upset to see the problem growing larger – to know that the already crowded orphanage would be further tested. At best I thought she would sigh and accept the new baby. Instead, the opposite happened…


“[The nun] seemed delighted to have another little one to care for.” 


That’s when I realized the secret to saving the world. The secret is to fall in love with the problem. Not to hate it.


I know, it sounds crazy, but the business world keeps proving that the companies that fall in love with solutions are the ones that fail. They’re blinded by their silver bullet approach. They can’t see deeper and they can’t change it when they need to.


“Fall in love with the problem, not the product.”  (If you’re an entrepreneur, read this manifesto and watch the video at the end).


So if you’re thinking about what to do with your life and how you can make a difference, think about all your ideas and opportunities. Look at them and see the problem that you want to solve.


And now ask yourself, with steadfast truth… “Do I look at this problem and love it? Does it make me feel alive to engage with it and wrestle with it? Do I welcome every new instance I see of it, feeling more and more alive?


If so, then you’re following the path of greatness, the path of genius. It’s the joy that Mother Teresa felt for every homeless child. It’s that divine insanity that Edison experienced as he tried 10,000 fibers to make the light bulb, none of which he considered to be a failure.


You may be focused on your own myopic universe, but when you look up from that laser focused joy, you will see the world brightly illuminated around you, with nothing to save, and everything to give.