A Slight Alteration

         “I feel so powerless. There is nothing I can do.” This is what a close friend said to me, a common reaction these days as we watch the punishing bombardment of civilian centers in Ukraine, as we learn of new casualties every day, and as we read of millions of refugees who have fled to Poland and elsewhere. Not to mention the other painful issues we must not forget, like the plight of the Uighurs in concentration camps in Xinjiang.

         I empathize with my friend, and I often feel the same. But I learned a long time ago from Elie Wiesel that we can always do something. And so we must make a slight alteration to my friend’s statement. We must turn it into a question: “What can I do?”

         This is really the first step to being a moral leader, which I define as someone willing to work to make the world better at any scale. You don’t need an official role to be a moral leader. You don’t need a lot of money or power. You don’t even need followers. You simply need to choose again and again to build your desire for a better, more just, more compassionate world – and then you need to act.  

         The question “What can I do?” is usually spoken without any foreknowledge of the answers. It is a step into a dark tunnel, and you don’t know what you will find: answers, practical solutions, ways to contribute, or just more questions. You do know that the experience of walking in the dark will likely bring anxiety, possibly anger, perhaps some unspeakable grief. 

But the question itself is a small candle in your hand, illuminating possibilities a few feet ahead of you at a time. 

         The question is generative. It opens space for creative thinking, for consideration of new possibilities. It keeps you engaged when you might more easily go back to sleep. 

         The people of Ukraine need you to stay awake now. Even if you don’t know exactly what to do, or how to contribute, your very presence, your refusal to ignore their plight, means something. This is one of the heartbreaking lessons of Holocaust survivors like Elie Wiesel, who said that simply knowing that the world cared about what was happening to the victims would have made the difference between hope and despair. 

         The despair came for him after the War, when he learned that U.S. leaders, including many in the Jewish community, knew about the Nazi genocide and did little to help. 

         What will you say to the children of Ukraine? Will you say that you knew and went about your days, focusing on selfish pursuits of luxury and entertainment? 

         You are better than this. 

         You will not wait, you will speak now, as the events are unfolding: “I see you. I am with you. I will not look away”.

         Then you will ask a simple question: “What can I do?” And keep asking until you get answers you can act on.