Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Friday, October 19, 2007

We Do Make a Difference

There was once a king of a vast and beautiful land. One day he was strolling in the grounds of his palace. He all of a sudden thought how magnificent it would be if he could have a pond filled not with water and multi-coloured fish, but with milk.

So he ordered his men to dig a very deep hole. They did as they were directed. That evening, the king instructed his people to each bring one glass of milk to fill the pond. He gave the word that it must be filled by sunrise. When night fell, men and women for miles around went to the king's pond with their glasses.
There was one man who watched them pass by from inside his little cottage. He thought to himself, 'look at how many people are putting milk in the pond. There must be thousands of them. Surely if I brought a glass of water instead, it could not make a difference?'
He told himself that he could not afford to sacrifice so much milk.
He considered for a long time, and finally, just before dawn, left the house with a glass of water in his hands. He walked for two miles. When he reached the pond, he knelt down in the thick darkness and poured water into the hole.
With his task accomplished, he crept away carefully, telling himself all the while that he had done the right thing.
In the morning the king woke and hurried down with anticipation to see his new pond. Nobody in the world would have something as wondrous as this.

But when the king arrived, he saw that the pond was as clear as glass. Everybody had poured water, not milk.
The blue sky and the king's horrified face were reflected in the still water.

My Spouse told me that story some years ago. I am not certain of the exact origin or age of the tale but its validity in our modern world is incontrovertible. It reflects this side of human nature: we believe, for some inexplicable reason, that we cannot make a difference. That causes not one but two major difficulties.

Firstly, if we retire from the world, so to speak, and actively do nothing to better it, our valuable contribution will be lost. If we have ideas about how to make something better and if we can encourage people to live a cleaner and simpler life, we will have done some great good.

Secondly, in assuming that our actions have no repercussions whatsoever, we become permanently blind to the damage we do. For instance, the excessively colossal cars we pass on the roads that never appear to carry more than one person—always begs the question 'why?' Consider the myriad of plastic bags from grocery stores or excessive packaging on items. Those do cause enormous damage in the long term, whether we are open to seeing it or not.

I think it is sufficient to say that our actions do, after all, matter. Being a passive caretaker of the environment is certainly better than actively causing destruction—albeit unintentional damage— but still, that isn't enough anymore. We need to first see that our behaviour does cast a long shadow.

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