What can I do today to make a difference in the world? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
Answer by Jessica Shambora, Communications at Quora (2017-present):
Given that I'm a winner of what Warren Buffet has called the "Ovarian Lottery," I should be filled with gratitude, and at times, I am. But often I'm filled with guilt too.
I think about all the ways I take from life instead of giving back. I wonder if there's a cause I can really get behind. A cause in need of not just my money but also my time and whatever talents I have to offer. A cause that means something to me.
I run through this cycle fairly often. It doesn't mean that I don't find causes worthy of giving to. I do, whether that's funding a worthy teacher's project through DonorsChoose.org or supporting my friends who are walking or cycling in support of a cure for breast cancer or multiple sclerosis. I've also found organizations to contribute my time to, like Chaplains in Corrections, /dev/color or Eastside Prep. But I still haven't found that one thing where I'm all in.
More recently, though, I've started realizing this might not be the point. At least, not right now. Maybe one day I'll find my cause, but fretting about it doesn't help me make an impact today.
Instead, I've started looking for small ways to make things better for the people around me. Of course this includes the people I love and care about. I try to reach out to my friends and family going through difficult times, whether they're grieving a loss or suffering disappointment. I let them know I'm thinking about them. I make time to be with them. And I listen. I also connect with loved ones celebrating joyful events and let them know I'm there with them too, cheering them on and wishing them the happiness they deserve.
But just as importantly, I try to show kindness to people I don't know -- people I will probably never know -- but with whom I share the same space on earth. Often this involves slowing down and remembering that it costs me very little to do something nice for someone else. That could be letting a car pull onto the road in front of me. Taking the time to look people in the eye who are helping me at the coffee shop or the doctor's office, and saying "thank you" like I mean it. Basically just being patient and forgiving and appreciative, which most of the time does not come naturally but which can be so powerful.
Thinking about this, I am reminded of David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College.
In the speech he explains to graduates that as adults, they are bound to face day-to-day frustrations, such as those associated with going to the supermarket after work: "the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines."
But we have a choice how we respond to the people we encounter in these scenarios. We can either opt for our default response, and think only about ourselves,
"Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do."
Wallace doesn't go as far as to explicitly prescribe acts of kindness, but he does make the case that consciously choosing what we think and how we see things, is the key to "being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day."
I know that the "petty, unsexy" things I do to help others won't change the world. But they are the things I can do today, wherever I am. And I also know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of these gestures of goodwill. It's less about being thankful for the favor and more about relief that someone sees you as another human.