Take out the trash, smile at a person, stop at a STOP sign, save the world.
On a Saturday afternoon in June of 2011, our friend and neighbor Sunil Badlani was driving his son Nikhil home from a lesson. Less than two miles from their destination, they passed by a two-way stop at the exact moment when another driver rolled through the STOP sign. The other driver’s car hit Sunil’s vehicle and caused it to flip and spin into oncoming traffic, resulting in an additional collision that took Nikhil’s life. He was 11 years old.
Sunil, Sangeeta, and Anay Badlani – Nikhil’s parents and brother – created a foundation in Nikhil’s name, determined to honor him by promoting music learning, scholarship, and traffic safety. Yesterday they achieved a significant goal when Acting Governor of New Jersey Kim Guadagno signed a bill that is now Nikhil’s Law. This new law adds a question about distracted driving to the New Jersey written driver’s license examination and offers all new drivers the opportunity to sign the STOP for Nikhil Safety Pledge, which reads as follows:
In order to ensure the safety of others on the road, passengers in my car, and myself as a driver, I pledge to obey traffic rules when driving and to be extra cautious and supremely attentive. Specifically, I will:
STOP COMPLETELY. I will come to a complete halt at any STOP sign and will never go through a red light
STAY ALERT. I will strive to keep my hands on the wheel and my mind on the road
TALK SAFE. I will use a hands-free cell phone system while driving, and will not text or use a handset unless I pull over
PLAN AHEAD. I will give myself an extra 5 minutes to get to any destination
As I stood and watched the bill being signed into law and listened to the grim statistics of distracted driving and vehicle crashes, I marveled at the contrast between the efforts to improve the world and the amount of work still to do. With so many doing so much, why is there still so much need and struggle? Countless people are going all out to house the homeless, deliver food and clothing to refugees in war-torn regions, vaccinate the world’s poorest children, raise money for research into cures and prevention of life-threatening diseases, support addicts looking to get clean, build homes and schools for disadvantaged populations, educate the incarcerated, and so much more. They start and run foundations, they push for messages to go viral on social media, they do grassroots work in their communities, they donate to organizations that do good all over the world. And yet many days I can hardly read the newspaper for all the conflict and crisis that bleeds out from its pages.
Maybe the problem is in my perception.
It occurs to me I may harbor a flawed idea that world-saving can be a steadily rising line on a graph, a process that grows in strength and reach over time until is complete and the line reaches a “100% SAVED” label at the top right corner of the grid. However, it probably doesn’t work that way at all. The world is a new landscape every single day. People are born and die, people’s lives change overnight for better or for worse, hungry people who received food yesterday need to eat again, people who were off the world’s radar screen suddenly appear, needing education, medical help, advocacy, autonomy. No matter how much good happens in one day, there is need again the next day.
Perhaps world-saving is more like doing laundry. Like wiping the table and washing the dishes. For most of us in the developed world, there is no day that doesn’t require food preparation and dishwashing; there is no week that doesn’t involve wearing and laundering clothing. We (or someone on our behalf) will need to do these tasks regularly and frequently as long as each of us is on the earth. I think we need to understand world-saving as this kind of manageable day-to-day task, something we might not want to let slide, lest the dishes and dirty clothes and unhelped people pile up all around us like Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout’s garbage. And you know what happened to her (if you don’t, click here to find out).
But here’s the thing. I do not mean that people should make enormous newsworthy strides each day. Actions the size of strides do make a difference, of course, and thank goodness organizations like the Gates Foundation and Doctors Without Borders do what they do. But one full stop at a STOP sign would have been as world-saving for the Badlani family as anything Bill Gates has ever done. One person taking a drunk person’s keys would have gotten my brother safely to his children’s camp on pickup day. One minute taken to fasten all the buckles on Cameron Wagner’s car seat would have saved his life. Small steps – or inches, or even efforts to not slide backwards – matter.
Actions of all sizes save corners of the world even when they don’t mean the difference between life and death. A friend calls another. A parent picks up a room so a child can play. A despondent person finds a way to cope for an hour. A shopper puts a cart away instead of leaving it in a parking space. Someone pays a bill, donates a coat, cleans out a shower drain, sends a photo to a grandparent, wipes a spill, signs a petition, eats something healthful, repairs a doorknob, has a kind word for someone else in the room or on a distant continent.
It’s not easy to feel confident that what you already do regularly makes an enormous difference. I struggle with this because I frequently have outsized and unrealistic intentions for how I will spend my time. But I’m going to entreat you to accept it anyway, even as I entreat myself. Whatever it is you do, try saying to yourself, “I can do this much.” Perhaps this small amount of mindfulness will help you understand the difference that you’ve made. It’s real.
If you are inclined to spread the word about world-saving as an accessible, necessary, daily-laundry-like opportunity, consider posting or tweeting something you did – stopped at a STOP sign, for example – with the hashtag #Icandothismuch. Whatever you do is welcome and needed. Whatever the size of “this much,” it is THIS MUCH (says the world to you, with its arms stretched out as far as they will go).