Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

Save one life. Start there.

August 22, 2023

If you save one life, you save the world. It’s a teaching that suffuses faith traditions across the world. It’s something I learned as a child from my own tradition, Judaism, and it has reverberated within me over decades now.

Clearly, saving just one life does not save the world. So why is this teaching so central to the daily religious practices of people across the globe? And why do I speak of this teaching in virtually every speech I give across the country? What is really being instructed here for you and me and others?

I believe it is this. If you save one life, you have made an intentional choice to step forward. You have made yourself visible. You’re demonstrating that you care about the health of society. You’re signaling to others that they should care as well. And you’re demonstrating that it is possible to make a difference, especially in this chaotic world we live in.

So many of us are tired, disaffected, and on the verge of giving up. We’re on edge. We feel alone, isolated, even lonely. Our civic faith in America has been fractured and imperiled even further by the pandemic, heightened social injustices, and a growing sense among people that they only trust God, themselves, and their immediate circle. No one else.

Too often, those who step forward have their efforts deemed insignificant or insufficient. You may have felt this yourself at times. I understand the temptation to want quick fixes, comprehensive plans, or a be-all, end-all solution. But we all know it’s unrealistic to solve inequalities and disparities in education, housing, or economics by tomorrow or even next year. Let alone something as complex as systemic racism or climate change.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t work toward resolving those problems. Nor am I saying we ought not to have audacious goals for our society and for ourselves. We should. We must. But clinging to the false hope of an immediate solution creates skepticism, even cynicism. It causes us to retreat. It makes us view any action as anemic, unworthy. It deadens hope.

 We must think about and approach the world differently. We are not going to solve what ails American society overnight. For me, that’s not being defeatist. Recognizing that truth—facing reality for what it is—is something that I believe should inspire us. It helps us to understand where we are, and to articulate where we want to go. It means all actions are on the table. It means all contributions matter. Isn’t this what the prophets called upon us to do—to be?

We know that saving one life does not save the world. But we have to start somewhere. And once you get started, you might be surprised at the chain reaction of actions that you spark in your community.

So, what does it look like to save a life? You don’t have to work in an emergency room or be a first responder to fulfill this role. You don’t need to fund a new wing of some important community institution. You don’t need to lead a big organization or command a large budget. Nor do you actually have to save a life. Rather it is a call to engage. To be present and awake! To get in motion and make a difference—however big or small.

It makes no difference what your title is or how much money you make. Your ability to “save a life” does not depend on those things. What matters is that you make a contribution. Listen: you can create change. Your efforts, no matter their size, are meaningful. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Never allow someone to take away the worthiness of your contribution.

I understand why many of us hold back. For those of you who have had your actions denigrated or your contribution diminished by antagonistic or doubting voices, I hear you. I know that sometimes the voices of negativity come from those closest to us—our family, friends, partners, allies. I have been in your shoes. I know what it feels like. I know the hill before us can seem steep.

But our journey forward depends on each of us to do our part—to make our contribution; only then can we create a shared journey, one that is rooted in our common aspirations and fueled by authentic hope.

And for those of you who get swept up in trying to solve everything on your own, slow down. You cannot do this alone. You will not last. You will not reach the goals you have set out to achieve. Chances are you have already seen others give up, give in, or quit because they went alone, on their own, for too long. If we each do our piece, it will contribute to our shared project of healing and hope. It is essential that we do this together. We can only do this together.

Let me be clear. Our current moment calls for us to be agents of hope—nothing less. Creating a new trajectory of hope is possible. It may not be easy, but so few things that truly matter in life happen to be easy. Don’t get overwhelmed. Remember, it starts with saving one life. As soon as you do, go save a second. Then a third. And keep saving lives with your work such that others are inspired to save their first life, then second, then third, and so on.

We know that saving one life does not save the world. But we have to start somewhere. And once you get started, you might be surprised at the chain reaction of actions that you spark in your community.

Then, we can create, together, a more just, equitable, inclusive, and hopeful society—for all.  

Richard C. Harwood is president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization located in Bethesda, Maryland. He is the author of the bestselling book, Stepping Forward: A Positive, Practical Path to Transform Our Communities and Our Lives.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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