Today, as I was relaxing at the beach, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on a conversation four high school kids we having on the beach blanket next to me. Their conversation was about making a positive difference in the world. And it went something like this…
“It’s impossible to make a difference unless you’re a huge corporation or someone with lots of money and power,” one of them said.
“Yeah man,” another replied. “My mom keeps telling me to move mountains – to speak up and stand up for what I believe. But what I say and do doesn’t even get noticed. I just keep answering to ‘the man’ and then I get slapped back in place by him when I step out of line.”
“Repression…” another snickered.
I smiled because I knew exactly how they felt. When I was their age, I was certain I was being repressed and couldn’t possibly make a difference in this world. And I actually almost got expelled from school once because I openly expressed how repressed I felt in the middle of the principals’ office.
Suddenly, one of the kids noticed me eavesdropping and smiling. He sat up, looked at me and said, “What? Do you disagree?” Then as he waited for a response, the other three kids turned around too.
Rather than arguing with them, I took an old receipt out of my wallet, ripped it into four pieces, and wrote a different word on each piece. Then I crumbled the pieces into little paper balls and handed a different piece to each one of them.
“Look at the word on the paper I just gave you and don’t show it to anyone else.” The kids looked at the single word I had handed each of them and appeared confused. “You have two choices,” I told them. “If your word inspired you to make a difference in this world, then hold onto it. If not, give it back to me so I can recycle the paper.” They all returned their words.
I scooted over, sat down on the sand next to their beach blanket and laid out the four words that the students had returned to me so that the words combined to form the simple sentence, “I have a dream.”
“Dude, that’s Martin Luther King Jr.,” one of the kids said.
“How did you know that?” I asked.
“Everyone knows Martin Luther King Jr.” the kid snarled. “He has his own national holiday, and we all had to memorize his speech in school a few years ago.”
“Why do you think your teachers had you memorize his speech?” I asked
“I don’t really care!” the kid replied. His three friends shook their heads in agreement. “What does this have to do with us and our situation?”
“Your teachers asked you to memorize those words, just like thousands of teachers around the world have asked students to memorize those words, because they have inspired millions of repressed people to dream of a better world and take action to make their dreams come true. Do you see where I’m going with this?”
“Man, I know exactly what you’re trying to do and it’s not going to work, alright?” the fourth kid said, who hadn’t spoken a word until now. “We’re not going to get all inspired and emotional about something some dude said thirty years ago. Our world is different now. And it’s more screwed up than any us can even begin to imagine, and there’s little you or I can do about it. We’re too small, we’re nobody.”
I smiled again because I once believed and used to say similar things. Then after holding the smile for a few seconds I said, “On their own, ‘I’ or ‘have’ or ‘a’ or ‘dream’ are just words. Not very compelling or inspiring. But when you put them together in a certain order, they create a phrase that has been powerful enough to move millions of people to take action – action that changed laws, perceptions, and lives. You don’t need to be inspired or emotional to agree with this, do you?”
The four kids shrugged and struggled to appear totally indifferent, but I could tell they were listening intently. “And what’s true for words is also true for people,” I continued. “One person without help from anyone else can’t do much to make a sizable difference in this crazy world - or to overcome all of the various forms of repression that exist today. But when people get together and unite to form something more powerful and meaningful then themselves, the possibilities are endless.
Together is how mountains are moved. Together is how small people make a big difference.