Can One Person Make a Difference?

Originally Published 10/8/2016. Lead Image credit: Pexels

*Correction from the original version: when writing this, I misunderstood the Law of Chaos. I thought that it was an abstract version of entropy, that all order naturally falls to disorder. Rather, the Law of Chaos states that one small change can lead to large consequences later, but those consequences are seemingly so chaotic and unrelated that it’s impossible to go in reverse and trace those events back to the original source.

Putting the Age-Old Question to Rest

“I believe that one person can make a difference.”

This game has several names, but the goal is to facilitate a conversation on philosophical and cultural topics. The first time I ever played this game was during an Amigos de las Americas training meeting in Houston. It wouldn’t be the last time I played this game, but it would be the most memorable time.

The rules are simple: stand to one side of the room if you agree with the statement, and stand to the other if you disagree. You’re allowed to stand anywhere in between. Once everyone has stopped moving, the person in charge of reading the statements asks a few people to say precisely why they agree or disagree.

One boy on the Disagree side raised his hand. When called on, he said something along the lines of the usual argument:

“No one person can change the world by themselves. One person could possibly start a movement, but that’s more embedded in other things than in just one person.”

I raised my hand, since I was sick and tired of hearing responses like that. I don’t recall exactly what I said when called on, but I’ll just fill in the gap with this:

“I sure think John Wilkes Booth made a difference.”

The room erupted in laughter. The boy from before chuckled, too. I shrugged and said, “No one said it had to be a good difference.”

That begs the question: is it just easier to do bad things than to do good things? 

Upon brief inspection, it seems like it. The Sphinx wasn’t built in a day, but its nose was shot off in one. It takes nine months to build a life, but mere seconds to destroy one. And isn’t that the non-scientific application of chaos theory*? Things naturally move toward the chaotic, the unbuilt, the rubble. It takes effort to make something, but much less to destroy it.

Take another look at that last sentence: “It takes effort to make something, but much less to destroy it.” That is true, and that is the key. No where in that sentence did I mention good or bad. Making anything, whether it’s good or bad, takes more effort than destroying it. I used Lincoln’s killer as an example: he destroyed something. But I could just as easily say the name thing about a person who goes back in time and kills Hitler.

We associate the word destruction with evil and the word construction with good, generally. But bad things can be built, and good things can be destructive. Take a quote from Hamilton, in reference to the American Revolution: “Winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.” Overthrowing a tyrannical government is easy when compared to building an entire new system to replace it. Rome wasn’t built in a day; neither was the Soviet Union. The fall of each of those, however, took much less time.

Can one person make a difference?

Absolutely. It’s silly to think that only good things are easily destroyed. There’s a statue of Robert E. Lee somewhere that took months to construct but will only take a well-placed hammer to destroy.

Everyone agrees that good things can be done. The question we’re considering is whether one small, insignificant, unimportant person has the influence to do it on their own, without the backing of others. The answer is yes, if you lower the required effort. Can one person alone build a university? No. Can one person burn down a concentration camp? Oh, yes. Those are both good things, and they give roughly the same benefit (teaching thousands vs. killing thousands). They just require different amounts of effort.

Should we focus on destroying bad things as opposed to building good things?

Don’t take this as advice. In real life, you’re very likely to find some people to stand behind if you want to make a (hopefully good) difference in the world.

What do I want you to take away from this article? Stop being what I call a Pessimism Hipster. Pessimism Hipsters go against what is “mainstream” because they’re tired of hearing the illogical, fluffy, peace-on-earth phrases you learn in Disney movies. Except Pessimism Hipsters normally don’t think things through, either. While it’s illogical to say “You can do anything,” it’s just as illogical to say, “You can’t do anything.”

The statement read during that game of Agree/Disagree was a prime example. The phrase “one person can make a difference” is full of cultural connotation that we’ve all felt from countless movies, novels, and success stories. The Pessimism Hipsters weren’t reacting to the words themselves; they were reacting to every underdog movie that sugarcoated the realities of life. They weren’t arguing in favor of a logical point; they were arguing against an illogical that was implied.

So please, the next time you’re trying to reality-check someone, reality-check yourself first.

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