A Most Frightening Question
It's Halloween. And I'm haunted.
I'm haunted by a question so eerie that it has been known to startle me awake at night or creep up unexpectedly wherever I find myself. It's stealth is unparalleled, striking at any time, cutting deep into my mental marrow, leaving me scarred and scabbed.
I don't shriek in horror or cower in fear, though. I try my best to stare the question down, hoping it will vanish into the night and find another willing victim. I even try to answer it in order to placate its violent whimsy. But I know it's all for naught. And so does my question. It will return again, just when I think it's gone forever, sneaking upon me again when most vulnerable, least expecting and altogether satisfied.
Because the tug – and even the excitement – of this question never relents. Like a persistent itch that no scratching seems to subdue, it nags in its own penetrating way. The question crawls under my skin and seems to live with me, like a mysterious bump I'm not sure if I should get checked out. While it doesn't hurt to touch and may well be nothing, it could also be life threatening. But its removal could eliminate a part of myself, a part I've enjoyed internally chatting with for as long as I can remember.
There are times when I suppress the question with action. I begin a new venture, write a new article, give a new speech or develop a new idea. And I hope that my actions are loud enough to mute the words of my question. I hope that by doing something I can show my question a new qualification, a polished resume line or an accolade. I hope that I can mount up defenses against it, like you might pile furniture in front a door to keep the boogeyman at bay.
But my question always knows a way in. In fact, what I think are defenses against it – talents and accomplishments – are really more like vitamins for its soul. A new achievement prepares it for the next onslaught, stronger and more determined than ever to make me stop the very actions I've begun.
My question reveals itself when I'm most comfortable, resting high on my laurels. It comes full force and blares:
And there I lay, seemingly paralyzed amidst my achievement. I scan the carnage only to see the tower I'd built out of my own contentment lying in rubble. A stone of accomplishment there, a pile of success here – it's all been washed away by the dangerous and disgusting morsel of doubt.
"Nice work," my question sarcastically observes. "But are you doing the greatest amount of good? Couldn't you be doing more if you were a teacher? More well known? Better educated? In a bigger city? Richer? Better connected? More involved?"
And just as I'm about to scream due to the deafening roar of my question, it slithers in to the darkness, forcing me to wrestle with my own self worth, instead of its hateful invective.
But recently, I've figured out a way to answer my question the next time it tries to slay me. I've hatched a plan in order to trap that which haunts me by way of its biggest vulnerability. Like teenagers in a horror flick, I think I’ve exposed the enemy and am waiting until it strikes again in order to counterattack.
Because if you want to defeat a question, you do so with a question.
The next time I wonder, "Am I doing the greatest amount of good?" I'll answer with, "How do you define the word amount?"
The tendency of those of us on the front lines of social change - those of us with the talents and passions to save the world - will always wonder if we could be doing something bigger and better right now that would bring about more change to more people much quicker.
And that's a wondering we'll always have lurking in our subconscious, ready to strike, unless we rethink the good we're doing. Not what it means, mind you – but rather how long we take to measure it.
Because ultimately, social impact and change aren't measured in one grand swoop. Indeed that's the myth that leads to inaction – that we must go big or go home. Rather, lasting change happens one step at a time, so that a lifestyle of change is the result.
Am I doing the greatest amount of good? Yes. Because right now I am doing good. And the good I did yesterday and the good I do tomorrow will be added up so that when it's all said and done, I'll stare my question in the face and pierce through its menacing frame with a sword of a lifetime of doing good. The sheer amount of my good will overwhelm its apathy and inaction and I'll stand over it, victoriously changed.
The Grand Canyon wasn't created by a tsunami, but rather by a single river, rushing on as rivers do, for centuries on end.