I have a confession to make: I want to change the world. I’m a shameless idealist, and in my best moments I overflow with an optimism that makes some people look at me in disbelief and ask questions such as, “How can you possibly think that we can ever improve anything when everyone is so corrupt?” and “Do you really think you’re making a difference?”

It isn’t always easy, and my answer is generally vague and nonspecific. To be fair, progress and real change have always come at a price, and have always been painfully slow. But I do believe that every little bit helps, and perhaps this attitude is what helps to keep cynicism at bay on most days.

I’m not saying that I don’t succumb to bitterness or, in my darkest moments, to despair—but when I do, it isn’t about my inability to effect change. Rather, my despair comes from looking around me and projecting a sense of responsibility on everyone else who isn’t doing what I think they should be doing to help.

For me, the question that sometimes comes up when I think about the state of world affairs is this: How can I, a single individual, have the biggest impact? The causes I care about are varied, and my time is limited. For this reason, I inevitably arrive at the same conclusion every time: I’m just one person. I can’t have a significant enough impact on my own. (I want results fast, because I’m impatient!) Solution? I need to get people to be on my side—because my mind, from its dualistic prison, comes up with two sides. The perpetual “us vs. them” type of thinking that’s often so polarizing tends to appeal to me in these situations. I need to make people care about animals, the environment, women, children, health care, the pharmaceutical industry, raw foods, racism, discrimination, and on and on. And OK, I am willing to concede that one person doesn’t have to care about everything. But I want them to pick something, and I want them to act. Get off your couch and do something! Why aren’t you involved with a cause?  Why aren’t you doing more?

This is where I begin to check out of reality and spin out of control. And I need to take a deep breath and tell my brain to be quiet.

A few years ago, somebody asked Thich Nhat Hanh a question at a retreat. The question, in rough terms, was the following: “How can we help the world and make people care?” I sat in the audience silently, happy that someone asked this particular question, because it had been plaguing me for years and I wanted a clear answer from an enlightened being. This was it, I thought. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. Thich Nhat Hanh would say something profound that would inspire us to act. And all 1200 of us would leave the retreat, go home to our respective lives and be better people. We would inspire others, and we would start movements and create ripple effects, and things would magically start to happen. People would come together and they would build sustainable, mindful communities. They would work to end war, discrimination, famine, and move away from our consumer culture focused on materialism to a culture of love and respect and peace. (I am an idealist, remember?)

As I listened to the response, it only took a few seconds for the fantasy world I’d dreamed up to crumble. Thich Nhat Hanh said that it’s very difficult to care about people when we’re in pain and caught up in our own problems. He said that to have an impact and to help others, we must first take care of ourselves. He also said that by being there, on a retreat, and practicing together, sitting mindfully in meditation, we are helping. We are breathing, and sitting, for the entire world. We are able to bring that stillness and peace back home with us, wherever we go.

I realize now that what he said couldn’t have been more true. But at the time, I was disappointed, and I felt an incredible sense of sadness. I felt that he missed a great opportunity to reach out and tell people to do better (as if he would ever lecture anyone about how to act). Upon closer reflection, however, I understood what he was getting at. It is indeed difficult to genuinely care about your friend’s flooded basement, for example, if you have just lost your job and have received news that a family member is gravely ill. A basement seems insignificant by comparison. We have all experienced a situation where we have listened to a friend’s problems and dismissed them, thinking that they’re nothing compared to our own predicament. Yet if we cannot generate true, genuine compassion for our friend, how are we expected to do so for the stranger down the street? What about the stranger in another city? Or the stranger across the world? The answer, of course, is that it can be very difficult to do so—our ability to generate compassion is actually related to our ability to care for ourselves.

We need to begin with ourselves, right where we are, taking care of our own suffering. Once we create a solid, stable base from which to operate, a world of possibilities opens up to us. We view the world through a lens of compassion, and we naturally want everyone else to be happy and safe as well. When we’re in a good place, we can reach out to others and use our joy and energy to act mindfully, having a bigger impact than we ever thought possible. The beginning may be small, but the magnitude of the effect cannot be underestimated, because our love and our joy will be contagious.

image: chess piece via Shutterstock