Nudging the World

“I’m done. I can’t take it any longer.” she said. “I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety since I was a teen, and I simply cannot do it any longer.”

This call arrived many years into my tenure on the suicide hotline, so I was not surprised by its beginning. It was how the call ended that took my breath away.

We spoke for a long time about the challenges she faced. The more we talked, the more inadequate I felt. The depth and complexity of her struggles overwhelmed me, as it did her. I struggled to find helpful words. When speaking to others, especially about their struggles, it is critical to be self-reflective, to search inside for what I am feeling in the face of their pain, and to be honest with callers. “I’m having trouble finding words that might help,” I told her deep into our conversation.

Some moments later, she told me about a conversation with her counselor. “She believes every person has a purpose. Once I find mine, she thinks I’ll feel better. But what if I don’t believe every person has a purpose?” she asked. I admitted I wasn’t sure that was true either. In that moment I was given a thought that had never occurred to me, even after thousands of calls. “Here’s what I do believe,” I told her. “Each of us can gently nudge the world every day. Everything we do, every moment we help another human or improve the environment, nudges the world ever so gently in a minute new direction. Hundreds of times each day; millions in our lifetimes. And, if you believe in the Butterfly Effect, some of those gentle nudges will change the course of human history.”

She interrupted me. “That was it,” she said. Fearing I might have said something inappropriate, I confessed my confusion. “What do you mean?” I asked. She responded, “A few moments ago, you admitted you were struggling to find words to help. Well, that was it. Perhaps I don’t need a purpose more than nudging the world hundreds of times every day. Perhaps that is enough. When I called, I was on my way home to self-harm. Now, I am determined not to.”

Even many years later, as I write these words, those moments take my breath away and tears emerge. I never know how calls may or may not change callers, but I will forever know how they change me.

I was often stunned by the unique path each call carved, into the world and into my heart. In thousands of previous conversations, I had never used those words. Why, I wonder, was I given them in that moment? I wonder where the thoughts, and words that complete them, come from. It feels arrogant to think they come from me.

I have reflected frequently, since that moment of meeting, on the idea of nudging the world. Perhaps, that idea was meant not only for her, but for me as well. Having long sought a deeper understanding of my own life and its meaning, those words speak to me. They tell of the value of many small deeds—nudges if you will—done every day. In those moments when I rue not having done something “big” with my life, these words console me. To echo the caller, perhaps that is it.

After a presentation at a local high school, I received a note from one of the students, who said, in part:

“This morning you spoke about your experience working in the suicide hotline. My life’s goal is to leave the world a better place than when I arrived. I thought I needed to do something huge, something great, to ‘change’ the world. You showed it is possible to do that just by showing love, kindness, and care. You save the lives of people, and you don’t even know if they are ‘bad’ or ‘good.’ I think it is because, as you said, you see great things in everybody. Thank you for changing my perspective.”

No, young man, thank you.

A war rages within, that pits a plethora of culturally held beliefs against a deep sense they may be inherently at odds with who we need to be as members of this fragile biosphere. The older I get, the more at odds I feel with the milieu in which I carve my own path. One of the most deeply troubling cultural convictions is the belief that a human life is valuable if it is defined by a “big” accomplishment. The bigger the impact on humanity, the more valuable life is. We celebrate that belief every day in newspaper stories, magazine covers, and narratives that go viral on social media.

A young neuroscientist called one afternoon. He was desperate to change the world through his work, but, as hard as he tried, he could not find a position to help him continue his studies. Every position for which he applied was eventually filled by a person with more experience and superior credentials. He always came up short. He was certain he needed to be “the best” in order to make the mark he desired to make. If he could not be the best, he told me he couldn’t go on. The doubts and fears were so overwhelming he told me he had given up and was finding it hard to be motivated to do anything.

During our call, he mentioned that playing the violin gave him comfort when he was stressed. I asked how many times in the past month he had been paralyzed because he was not the best violinist? He was taken aback and puzzled by the question, but after a pause he replied, “That would be about zero.” “And yet, there are thousands of violinists, who are not in the first chair in their orchestras, but make a necessary, invaluable contribution. So, even if you never occupy the first chair in neuroscience at some institution, is it possible you could make many necessary, invaluable contributions?” The question took him by surprise and seemed to remove a huge burden. He ended our time with a renewed sense of purpose and told me he was prepared to continue his quest.

What if a life is valuable regardless of the size of our “accomplishments”? What if it is valuable simply because the one who lived it nudged the world in innumerable ways? What if the “size” of one’s accomplishments have nothing to do with our insidious ways of measuring and evaluating a person’s life? And, since I list my title as “Speaker Provocateur,” allow me to be provocative. What if nudging the world is all we should ever attempt to do?

I think about nature and how we, as members of the species Homo sapiens, are outliers among the millions of other species. I don’t think a bird dreams of “big accomplishments:” building a new kind of nest, applying new technology to allow for more space, room for other families, or to create nests that last twice as long as those built last year. A bird discovers twigs, leaves, grass, and other bits of nature and places them one at a time, making thousands of small contributions until, one day, a nest emerges, just like those built by its species for thousands of years. A beaver, likewise, builds a dam the same way thousands of ancestors built theirs, nudging the world one twig, branch, or log at a time. We, as humans, strive to make the future better by making it different, altering it radically.

There is an arrogance in believing I know what is best for the future. I want to always remember I make the world better, change the course of human history gently, and perhaps most profoundly, by nudging it one smile, one kind word, one friendly gesture at a time.

2 thoughts on “Nudging the World”

  1. Roger, this is beautiful. Just exactly what I needed to read this morning. When I get overwhelmed with overwhelmed-ness, I will use this thought to just nudge as a touchstone. <3

  2. Hi Roger!
    I love the idea of “nudging” the world in lieu of the big contribution-our being number one- of course it matters! In my work as a therapist, I encourage nudging. There is so much self-deprecation that I see. We compare ourselves to others in the harshest ways. We want to make a difference & be useful in some way- like you did on the hotline in such a creative way! Nudging is more compassionate and truly more realistic in my book. So some days the nudges are tiny, some days they’re larger, but it’s the way to go! Thank you for this. And it’sa perfect way to describe the music I’m recording now- I can only hope it nudges just a bit. Thanks for sharing this! You have always been a budget nudger!

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