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 child and I simply cannot do it any longer.” I struggled to find words to help, and I told her so. In the midst of our conversation, she told me her psychologist believed 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?” I admitted I wasn’t sure that was true either. “But here’s what I do believe. 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. “That was it.” Fearing I might have said something to push her over the edge, I confessed my confusion. “What do you mean?” I asked. “A few moments ago, you admitted you were struggling to find words to help. Well, that was it. When I called, I was determined to self-harm. Now, I won’t.”

That is one of more than ten thousand calls I have answered on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I am often stunned by the unique path each call carves, into the world and into my heart. In ten thousand conversations, I had never used those words. Why, I wonder, was I given them in that moment?

I have reflected on them frequently since that moment of meeting. Perhaps, they were 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.

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 contains a “big” accomplishment. The bigger the impact on humanity, the more valuable the life. We celebrate that belief every day in newspaper stories, magazine covers, and narratives that go viral on social media.

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 many, many positive 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 often list my title as “Speaker Provocateur,” allow me to be provocative. What if nudging the world is all we should ever attempt to do?

4 thoughts on “Nudging The World”

  1. I see the little ‘nudges’ having a pronounced effect each time I am able to spend quality time with my almost 4 year-old grandson. Children are sponges so it doesn’t take much to have a positive impact that launches their creativity, inquisitiveness or acceptance of new ideas. Baby steps can become profound leaps and bounds in very short periods of time. I agree with you that we are all placed on earth for a specific purpose and our purposes are all intertwined and mutually dependent upon one another. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I receive immense and immeasurable pleasure each time I know that I have given just a little nudge to my grandson.

  2. Roger, timely words. You suggest that it is sufficient to nudge “the world” in a direction of humanity and kindness as one has opportunity. That seems right to me. As to your observation and lament that so much of what we have taken for granted, the assumptions wide spread within our culture at this point in life appear erroneous and likely to cause the extinction of humans and other species….I was reminded of the lines in a T. S. Eliot poem, The Dry Salvages.

    There is no end, but addition: the trailing
    consequence of further days and hours,
    While emotion takes to itself the emotionless
    Years of living among the breakage
    Of what was believed in as the most reliable–
    And therefore the fittest for renunciation.

    Eliot’s Four Quartets have meant a lot to me over the years. I’ve turned to them many times. We’ve lived for too long in what is a very fragile societal system that is now breaking. I am certain that a valuable takeaway is to know now that our expectations have been out-sized.

    I hope that we can meet again soon to continue our sharing of ideas and good will.


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