I Want to Take Action, But I Don’t Know How: How Can I Make A Difference If I Haven’t Yet Found My Cause?

Our society is tumultuous right now. I’ve been conversing with a lot of clients, colleagues, and friends who share my distress about the fever-pitch levels of discord, disharmony, hatred, suspicion, and negativity that are swirling through our communities right now.

In the middle of such painful uncertainty, I’m touched and inspired by the fact that so many people I know are refusing to succumb to the paralysis-inducing fear that this kind of societal negativity naturally evokes. They march, make phone calls, host postcard-writing parties, offer aid to immigrants, facilitate healing, examine their own biases, and lead idea-generating discussion groups.

Yet even though societal strife is pushing us to play a more active role in our communities, being engaged in this way is new to many. It takes a while to discover or create opportunities for contributing our energy to the wider society in a sustainable way. And even when we’ve found a project or a cause to pour our life energy into, we can still feel kind of anxious when we wake up each day to the turmoil that surrounds us, aching to do something to make a difference.

I take a grain of solace in remembering a central point from Interpersonal Neurobiology: Our minds consist of processes that are both
–  contained within our individual bodies, AND
–  flowing between us and other people via social connection.
That is, our brains contain resonance circuits that cause interpersonal experiences to directly influence how we mentally construct reality!

Just how does that idea bring me solace in these troubled times?

That knowledge about the social wiring of our minds makes me understand at a visceral level that I can make a difference in the larger societal mind with every social interaction I engage in. That is, I instigate ripples of kindness and respect in my broader community each time I treat another person, place, or animal with understanding and positive regard.

This nugget of knowledge has inspired me to make a daily practice of “setting my heart right” as part of my contribution to healing the wider world. I use Confucius’ idea of setting my heart right to bring active and mindful awareness to making my kind feelings toward others more visible: I make eye contact with the checker at the convenience store; I hold the door open for another person even when I’m in a hurry; I hug my friends when I greet them; I nod at the homeless veteran stooped on the corner even when I don’t have money to give. The opportunities are endless.

One day I was checking out at a local grocery store that prints the names of hometowns on employees’ nametags. I noticed that my middle-aged checker hailed from a distant foreign country and that she was new to the English language. Instead of hurrying through the grocery-checking process with mindless efficiency, I engaged with this human who was bagging my butter and eggs.

“How long have you been in the U.S.?” I asked

“About nine months,” she said.

“That’s a big change! What brought you here?”

“My son came here to go the university and decided to stay after he graduated. My husband and I didn’t want to spend the rest of our lives living so far from him. He’s our only child.”

Being the mom of a young adult child myself, and having been deeply rooted in my community for over 30 years, the enormity of the sacrifice she’d made to leave everything behind to live near her son hit me in the gut. My heart split open with love for her, and tears sprang to my eyes.

“Wow! That’s a big move for you! That sounds like a difficult choice.”

Scan, beep. Scan, beep.

She plucked bananas from my basket and held them in silence for a moment. She took a breath and glanced up at me.

“It was. I’m an accountant. I had my own business. My husband is an engineer. He’s mowing lawns right now.”

I could hardly hold back my tears. “What a sacrifice. You must really love your son.”

She nodded and handed me my receipt.

I looked her right in the eye and said, “Thank you,” with more gratitude than I’ve ever expressed to a grocery checker.

And right there in the grocery store line, this accomplished accountant-mother-turned-grocery-checker said in heavily accented English, “Do you mind if I give you a hug?”

She walked out from behind the cash register as I reached out to her. We hugged. We cried. I walked away changed.

I know I made a difference to her that day, just by acknowledging her humanity with small talk. And the way she received my momentary kindness touched me to the root of my soul. My heart swells and I cry every time I recall her open and grateful face, even now while I’m writing this. Remembering that simple yet life-altering moment of human connection makes it easy for me to understand that setting my heart right, and mindfully attending to the emotional signals I broadcast in everyday moments of my life does have an impact on my community.

Another take on this idea appeared in an interview I heard with poet Marilyn Nelson in Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast. Ms. Nelson referred to a kind of prayer she read about in a book written by a nun who lives as a hermit. The nun “offers a kind of prayer which she calls the prayer of the loving gaze. Just put your love into your eyes and just look at the world with that gaze and that’s what contemplation is about, really. It’s learning how to find that gaze in yourself and to put it in the world.”

I take heart when my basic intuitive sense as a human aligns in these ways with science, literature, and wisdom traditions to point to a current of love and healing that’s available to us all.

We really don’t have to wait to find our perfect cause to take action to heal our world.

We can mindfully turn our loving gaze out onto our anguished world in small moments. Right now. Today.

And our kindness will ripple out into the interpersonal mind in ways we are too small to predict.


How can you “set your heart right” at the beginning of each day? What small gestures of kindness and respect can you imagine offering to strangers and loved ones? What gets in the way of your mindful, loving gaze out into the world?