I admit it; I eavesdrop on conversations while I’m at coffee shops, the loud ones at least. For example, I’ve heard two atheists discussing the futility of faith, consultants selling oils, women talking about family, and a dozen other interactions.
Recently, some high school students, all girls, shared their dreams for the future at the table next to me. With all the earnest of youth one stated, “I don’t want to make a small difference. I want it to be big.” I admit to having had similar thoughts. Of course, a difference can simply mean change, either good or bad, but I gathered these young ladies had a positive change in mind. Instantly, I cringed.
Someone close to me said it was important that I was making a difference in the lives of my students. As my elder, I did not protest but I also did not agree. What constitutes a difference? How would one measure it? Because I am a teacher, does that mean higher grades or improved subject knowledge? Most people have accepted the notion that a teacher guides a student in “life skills” at the minimum. How does one measure such a thing? Let’s say a first generation student goes to college. Is it because of me? What if a young lady develops more self-control or a young man becomes more responsible? Is this making a difference and how would I ever know if I was a catalyst? If I never know I make a difference, at the end am I satisfied? My fellow coffee shop goer demands she make a “big difference.” And that means? Is being a mom enough or do you have to conquer the outer reaches of space? And what about everything else in between?
For the last several years I haven’t concerned myself with making a difference. It’s complicated how that came about, but a major reason was that is simply not the point. Am I making a difference? I submit I was asking the wrong question. (What follows is not my idea. All the best ideas are there, sometimes behind the veil and the mist, but they’re there.) The best articulation of the myth of progress aka “making a difference” is when Father Stephen Freeman caused quite a stir on his blog a while back. The discussion in the comments section of his post, “You Barely Make a Difference and It’s a Good Thing,”showed the pull of our modern mindset. At one point Fr. Stephen wrote, “The world already has a Savior, Jesus. The modern myth of “making a difference” under discussion in this post is just another version of “we can and must save ourselves/each other”. No. That is Jesus’ job. Ours is to follow Him (obeying His commandments). We abide in Him, and He does all the rest.”
What does it mean to make a difference? Do I frequently actually mean, how can I save “them”? (Teachers, I submit, are the some of the worst at this.) Ah, but I can’t save my students, and how would I do that anyway? Some of them don’t need saving in the material or educational sense which is all that I am explicitly asked to do in a public school, and most of the saving people have tried through public education makes the problem worse or just pushes the problems down the road.
For so long I fretted about the state of education in America. I mourned the loss of self-control and responsibility in my students. I worried with sweat and tears about how I could change the system. Someone should change the system, right? But was I ever capable of changing public education? It is a monster, one of the leviathans of our modern age. Do I have the power of the state? Someone might ask, can’t you elect someone who can? To which I cite as an example: because telling our representatives to change NCLB to ESSA makes a big difference, right? (For those of you who don’t know those acronyms represent federal legislation regarding education. The latter recently replaced the former. When I read the new policies, I laughed out loud. Then I thought, they’re kidding, right? It’s like making two turns on a Rubik’s cube and saying, “See we solved it.”)
The systems of the modern world will change for better and for worse over time and in ways unpredictable, and what part do I as an individual really play? And how do I know it would be a good part in the long run? I’m sure the French revolutionaries thought theirs was one of the good roles in history as well.
Even if it’s for the good, it may be on such a long time scale that I will know nothing about it while here on earth. Think of the abolition of slavery in Europe mostly brought about by Christians after long centuries. Neither Paul nor Jesus called for an end to slavery. For that matter, most of us don’t ask why Jesus didn’t bring down the Roman Empire during his earthly ministry? Surely, that would have made a difference. Yet He allowed them to stand for centuries longer even going so far as to tell one of the Roman Centurions, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” Can you imagine how preposterous He sounded? How angry He made some of them? I can hear my modern self: “Just do something. Don’t give compliments to the enemy.” Of course, He had in mind defeating death with death. That’s not doing something on a different magnitude. It’s other dimensional.
Unseen by me most of the time and only possible through the mercy of God, the Spirit moves me to wake up and keep going. I can’t imagine a worse example of someone trying to follow the commandments of Jesus: feed, clothe, love, pick up your cross. Oh, I just really stink at it. On those days when I insist on making a difference, I cook my kids dinner or help a student with a math problem. It’d be so much cooler to do something big. Then I imagine that Centurion. Can you imagine the sins and acts he had committed? What had he ordered his men to do? Think of the difference he could make in the Empire. Oh, but he loved his servant and he trusted a power greater than himself. Christ gave him no other commands. “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” At this point, I’m just glad I get out of bed everyday. Who knew not making a difference could be so hard?