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Lessons I Learned While Trying to Save the World

Lessons I Learned While Trying to Save the World

I am a chronic idealist. Our culture’s messages of “save the world,” “lean in” and “YOLO” (You Only Live Once) are metaphorically tattooed on my heart, fueling a million and a half dreams I have to help change the world for the better.

As a twentysomething right out of college, I packed those dreams with me as I traveled through Africa to launch a nonprofit focused on the HIV/AIDS and water crises. But it didn’t take long before I was blindsided by the painful truths about how hard it is to do a good thing in the world—and to stick with it through the hardship, burnout and disillusionment.

I think it’s OK to be honest with ourselves and admit that it’s difficult to stay with anything these days. We can hardly stay committed to something as simple as Friday evening plans or as weighty as marriage vows, so staying true to your dreams and to your God-given calling in the world is no small feat.

As an American in the millennial generation, I came of age in a culture of self-actualization and instant gratification—the focus did not include building the endurance and patience that are required to stay with it when it gets challenging.

In my initial pursuits to change the world, I quickly found that the glitz of standing for a cause would wear off. And the leaders of the organizations I followed would disappoint me. I found out that doing good was more complex than I had envisioned. The problems were more convoluted, and the solutions were less clear than the slogans suggested.

I grew weary, sometimes losing sight of the vision. I’ve questioned whether justice and mercy in the world were worth the pursuit. I’ve looked to grab onto the next big thing, to move on to something else.

But the world is going to move faster and continue to tempt us to abandon the disciplines of patience, presence, prayer, steadfastness, relationship, consistency, faithfulness and hope. Smart watches, quicker turnarounds and the speed of consumptions fool us into thinking that redemption is fast.

And yet, there are still truths about the world that we ought not ignore, amid the sheen of the immediate:

The Path to a Calling May Be Uneven

If you look at the amount of time it takes in Africa for corn to grow or for a girl to walk with her bucket to the nearest watering hole, you will find that the pace of life and the growth of the people mimic that of the pace and growth of the land.

Or if you witness the achievement of a community coming together to build its own rainwater catchment tank only to be followed by an unexpected season of drought, you begin to expect a slow-paced and uneven path in all things.

As we each commit to the deepest calling of our God-given vocation, that path may often be rougher than we expect.

The Path through a Calling Is Slowly by Slowly

In Kenya, they say pole pole, or slowly by slowly. In Zambia, they say panono panono, brick by brick. They are not referring to just speed or pace, but also the uneven up and down, three steps forward two steps back nature of both work and life amid challenging circumstances, broken relationships and deep-set cultural constraints.

There is never an expectation that life will go smoothly or that you will reach your destination with expediency. Slowly by slowly expects ebb and flow; sees health care happening in the midst of overwhelming sickness; brings 10,000 liters of water even if 100,000 are needed. Brick by brick, there are hospital wings and fresh water wells, yet millions more women continue to walk miles for water.

Slowly by slowly, we expect to wage the long defeat and seek after the new heavens in the midst of a nearly blinding brokenness.

Remain Faithful Along the Path

As I think about the invitations to “save the world” or embrace the concept that “you only live once,” my 11-year journey in that direction has taught me that the world is not actually mine to save. I can only be faithful to what God gives me today — whether walking three steps forward or even two steps back. It’s a winding path of trial and error—taking the initiative, dreaming big, but starting small and acting on it daily. It’s realizing that every faithful interaction toward your passion is a piece of a grander story, but you live them out one at a time.

Even while we live in this culture of expediency and instant gratification, change comes more slowly and gradually than we all wish to admit. But we never lose sight of the destination.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Destination

There are so many days when we will question why we are doing what we are doing. It’s too hard. I’m tired. It’s complex.

But we’re on the trail toward that mountain peak, and let’s stay committed to getting there with everyone else who is on that same mission. So on the days when our feet hurt or the pack is heavy and we just want to turn around, let’s keep ourselves focused on the destination while at the same time celebrating the mile marks or even celebrating more steps in front of us.

Because life ought not be a sprint. Dreaming big, and then pace yourself, simply choosing to take a few more steps every day.

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