When I was a child, in the ’50s, there seemed to be a universal conspiracy of parents telling their children to clean their plates because there were starving children in China. China might as well have been Mars as far as I could tell. I never could make the connection to how what I ate or didn’t eat could have any impact on those nameless starving children. Now I wonder if my parents’ generation wasn’t desperately trying to instill empathy in a generation that, by the world’s standards, had everything.

Though I didn’t get the lesson then, I had the experience later in my childhood of living in Venezuela for three years and witnessing real and totally incomprehensible poverty at the same time that I was living in a community of wealthy Americans. That lesson stuck with me like no nameless Chinese child did. I remember the feeling of absolute helplessness in the face of what appeared to be totally random inequity.

The first precept of Buddhism is that life is suffering. As a young adult, I wouldn’t have believed that. My generation set out to change the world and truly believed that all we needed was love. We thought it was as simple as naming the problems and protesting the wrongs. We did not realize that the demons lived within us.

Now, some 40 years later, I know that the Buddhists were right about suffering. Of course, they do not leave it at that, but offer a way to transcend, as does every religion in the world. But the suffering the Buddhists talk about is not just the obvious of children starving or war or any number of tortures taking place around the world. I learned that no one escapes.

It is the friend struggling with cancer, the horror of senseless violence, the bigotry and hatred that seems to rise up anew in every generation. It is the terrible grief of losing one you love. It is children in your own town who go hungry and suffer abuse. And it is the demons inside us that prevent us from knowing and experiencing in every moment the incomprehensible unconditional love we are all made of.

I made a commitment almost 40 years ago to take a look at those demons and ask for healing from God and a number of amazing people. It has been an all-consuming and miraculous journey. Along the way I felt like I was able to share some of that healing with a number of people, whom I hope were helped in some way.

My gratitude for what I have been given knows no bounds and yet I seem to struggle sometimes with what I am not doing, which is basically not saving the world. Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous and kind of pompous to think one could save the world, but I think that those of us who have worked hard to heal wounds and allow ourselves to be truly sensitive to the suffering within us and around us have a very difficult time with just what our role is in the alleviation of that suffering.

I do believe we are not just sent here to transform suffering in ourselves, but that our institutions and power structures can also be transformed to reflect a more compassionate way. I have only to look to Gandhi and Martin Luther King for inspiration. These two men gave their lives to teach us a way to say no to injustice without violence. And they did change the world. They were not the only ones, of course, but they are perhaps the most well known.

Then again, having such role models can be fairly intimidating for us mere mortals. It brings up that helpless feeling I had as a child. Where does one begin in the face of the magnitude of the problems in our world or even in our city or town? There are no easy answers to that question.

If we look at Gandhi and King, we see that while both had a passion for justice, neither set out to change the world. They simply responded in whatever way they could to what was intolerable to them. We also know that everything they did came from their compassion for others and a devotion to prayer and meditation in their own lives. For them, every decision no matter how big or how small was brought to God.

Again, it was not something they set out to do, it was something that was given to them, and at great personal sacrifice they said yes.

Using this example, each of us can ask ourselves what is ours to give. No matter how big or small, through prayer and meditation we too can discover what part we can play in the healing of our planet. As Gandhi said, “We must become the change we want to see.”

I once heard a young man speak about the day he tried to kill himself. He said that if just one person on the street had smiled at him that day he wouldn’t have tried it. It was a great reminder to me that even something as simple as my smile freely given can change the world.

The Rev. Cathy Grigsby is an interfaith minister who teaches at the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine and is the co-founder and coordinator of the Interfaith Ministers of New England. She can be contacted at: [email protected]