While today we celebrate Marin Luther King Jr., and the change in the world he helped create, sometimes I can’t help but feel depressed about how long the change process takes. More so than a salmon who swims upstream (who at least gets to mate at the end of the swim), our efforts to create change seem to take forever. And instead of cold rushing water, we often face belligerent, uninformed, and stubborn people who aren’t even interested in making the world a better place. It’s actually amazing that anything changes at all, really, when you think about how hard it is.
But fortunately, I love to read about history. And history tells us a similar story over and over again. It’s not the stupid-boy history we learn in school where one country thinks killing people in another country will solve a problem, but the history of ideas and of liberation and freedom. Yes, America, I’m talking about freedom! How do freedom and change come about? S-L-O-W-L-Y. Slowly and painfully. It’s not about being logical or reasonable (which is very frustrating to me, personally). It’s about a hundred, no, a thousand, no, a million people over time doing big things, small things, hard things, brave, courageous things, and unpopular things, often over hundreds of years. Many times, one or two people get the credit and recognition—Martin Luther King, for instance (today is his special and well-deserved day!). But taking a deeper look shows that people like Dr. King are often preceded by a hundred or even 200 years of people who have built the road for him.
One of my favorite books that show the detailed, daily effort it takes to create change over time is America’s Women, 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins (William Morrow, 2003), who also writes for The New York Times. The author followed up that book with When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of Women from 1960 to the Present (Little, Brown and Co., 2009), which I am halfway through reading. Both of these books are filled with jaw-dropping stories about the ignorance of the times, and the brave people—black, white, Asian, women, men, straight, gay—who struggled against ignorance (not always associated with education level, mind you!). Stories like that of the first American writer to achieve international fame: Phyllis Wheatley, a young black female slave (when is her special day?). She influenced the thinking of Ben Franklin and George Washington, yet died penniless and alone at age 31 in 1784. Or the idiocy of the medical establishment of the mid 1800s, when the removal of women’s ovaries, clitorises, and uteruses was performed to make them more “orderly, industrious, and cleanly.” Don’t laugh; the practice is still alive in other countries.
So whether it’s getting the world to go organic, or getting people to be less prejudiced, or introducing a new medical or scientific theory into our minds as something real, ask yourself…are you a change facilitator or blocker? Are you one of the people helping to speed up our evolution, or are you too comfortable with the status quo? You don’t have to be a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to change the world, you can just be you, and do what you were meant to do on this earth to, hopefully, make it a better place, not a worse one. Because yes, everything you do really does matter. And if you can, read some good history books like the kind Gail Collins writes, and you’ll see that it’s all the little stories that create the biggest change. Our freedom depends on it, because history shows that freedom is the most fragile thing of all.