Reflections on our collective responsibility in creating a better world
I remember a story I read when I was a child. It was about a little girl who turned her street upside down because she did not follow her mother’s simple instructions. Whilst I can’t remember the exact details of the story, I have provided my version, and the moral remains intact.
A little girl was going out to play in the playground near her house as she did every afternoon. She was in a hurry to meet up with her friends, so she slipped her feet into her shoes without fastening the buckles. Her mother noticed this as she ran out of the house and shouted at her: “fasten your buckles so you don’t lose your shoes”. The little girl was in a hurry, so she didn’t heed her mother’s instructions. She was off in a flash, her shoes remaining unbuckled.
As she was about to cross the street, the buckle of her right shoe came undone, and the shoe slipped off. She quickly put her shoe back on but left the buckle in the middle of the street. Shortly after she had gone, the family dog saw the shiny buckle and ran into the street to pick it up. As the dog ran towards the shiny buckle, a man was driving down the street towards the dog and nearly ran into it. He swerved in good time to avoid hitting the dog and tore through the fence of a compound beside the street. His car hit the fire hydrant just in front of the fence before crashing through the fence. Water began spilling all over the street, and soon enough, a small mass of water built up around the scene. The man sustained some injuries and had to be taken to the hospital while his car was towed away.
All the while, the little girl, oblivious of the commotion and damage she had left in her wake, was having fun at the playground with her friends. It was not until she left the playground and got on the street leading to her house, did she see what had happened. On getting home, her mother scolded and punished her because she knew the entire incident was all her daughter’s fault. She had observed and realised what had happened: the dog had run into the street because of the shiny buckle.
The little girl probably thought that buckling her shoe was something she could do later or not at all. Unfortunately, her inaction had grave consequences for other people: the man whose car was damaged and had sustained injuries, the house owners who would need to repair their fence, and the town council who would need to repair the fire hydrant and clean up the area. The little girl did not suffer any loss, but her carelessness had cost others so much more.
This is one of the few stories that have lived with me from childhood. I remember wondering how such a little thing could affect so many people and not have a single impact on the person who initiated the sequence of events. This story often comes to mind whenever I want to take an action I know I should but don’t because it may be seemingly inconsequential or it may take up time when I would rather be doing something else.
The older I have become, the more it has dawned on me that our actions or inactions can initiate a chain reaction that could bring about good or bad for others. It may even seem like we are unaffected by the outcomes, but in reality, everything goes around in turn: we end up feeling the impact in some way. We wonder about what we have experienced, but we rarely think that we may have had a role to play in our present circumstances. When we had to do the right things, did we do them? When we had to speak up for others, did we lend our voices? And then we experience the very things we refrained from doing.
I think about the Nigerian education system, for example. Our response to declining public education standards has been to either establish or patronise private educational institutions. But we still have to coexist in the same society with people who attend these poor public institutions, and some of them would end up in leadership. What then would we expect from them? The same scenario has played out in several other sectors. We could have done something, but we took the easy way. We thought we were immune not realising that things come back in turn.
I came across a proverb that made me think: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” Our responsibility to society is to contribute toward our mutual good. It is not just for us to do things because we stand to benefit directly but because our actions can serve the majority who may not be able to stand up for themselves.
I want a better world, you want a better world, everybody wants a better world, but what exactly is a better world? What are the things that we desire in our world but don’t have? Everyone has a picture of what they see as a better world. To the roadside hawker, it could be the opportunity to go to school and not worry about the fees. To the unemployed person, it could be a desire to have meaningful employment that supports their basic needs. To the busy executive with young children, it could be a country where her children can access every opportunity they need to excel. To the government, it could the nation’s prosperity, ensuring that the basic needs of its people are met.
A better world would be one where we are our brother’s keeper. People would be more humane and considerate, less exploitative. Everyone would realise that their actions and inactions could have consequences beyond themselves.
A better world starts with me, it starts with you, and if we all work together to tackle the problems we see, we could very well bring about the change we desire one day at a time. We need to ask ourselves what we, in our capacities, can do to bring about a better world. Complaining about what we believe governments, business leaders, and those in positions of power should do or not do is not enough. We can start by thinking about the small changes we can initiate to bring about the life we desire. Let us take one small step daily towards the life we desire: this is the way I see things today.