The country singer Brad Paisley recently released the song, I Can’t Change the World, which indirectly contains a valuable reminder for Catholics regarding the way we should treat others. After a verse describing the feeling of helplessness which comes from seeing so much suffering in the world, the chorus is as follows: “I can’t change the world / Baby, that’s for sure / But if you let me, girl, / I can change yours.”
Although these are romantic lyrics, their basic message is one that applies any kind of human relationship, whether it is that of a spouse, sibling, friend, or even a simple encounter with a complete stranger. No matter who we come in contact with, we have the ability to change that person’s world in a positive way.
So often, when we hear this message, we automatically assume that it applies primarily to anonymous gestures to complete strangers: the kind of heartwarming story of a mysterious benefactor that you might read in a Dear Abby column, for instance. We often overlook this responsibility when it comes to those closest to us, however, partly because it is easier to commit to a “no strings attached” action for someone who we may never see again than for someone who we have a long history and future with. As important as it is to reach out in support to those we do not know, we do have the greater responsibility to reach out to the people who love us (and who we love) the most.
Choosing to act with love can take many forms. It could be something small like offering to babysit a grandchild or something large like forgiving a debt, but whatever it is, it is a conscious effort to change someone else’s world for the better. It can also take the form of tough love, however, and mean reaching out with a concern, rather than with a compliment, especially when it comes to spiritual issues. Unfortunately, we can rationalize away our responsibility to do this by telling ourselves that we are overstepping our boundaries. We value “keeping the peace” over everything else, and feel uncomfortable with getting too involved. There is no question that it can be difficult to risk offending someone by expressing worry over a moral decision they are making—but it is sometimes necessary to do so. And if we, as someone who knows and loves them, will not speak out, who will? After all, true love means wanting the best for them, which means a peaceful eternity in Heaven, not a non-confrontational lifetime on Earth.
It might be helpful to remember that we often do express our concerns already, likely on a regular basis—but only in terms of issues that are earthly welfare, not spiritual. We urge our chain-smoking parent to stop smoking, for example; or we offer to exercise with our overweight best friend. We see this as a simple matter of practicing tough love and daring to speak a truth that they need to hear, even if they don’t want to hear it. We feel justified because we know it is proof of how much we love and care for them, but we decide that, when it is a spiritual matter, it is not our place to say anything. For instance, it is unfortunate that while we might be eager to tell our sister to guard her heart and lose her jerk of a boyfriend, we don’t feel comfortable advising her to guard her body and chastity from this loser.
One of the reasons why we draw back so quickly from asserting ourselves in this way is because we are afraid of being labeled “intolerant,” “judgmental,” or possibly worst of all: “holier-than-thou.” When we are tempted to rationalize away our responsibility, however, we should remind ourselves of the consequences that could accompany whatever choice we make—and that we could change someone’s entire world, in the process. Just think, that family member who is considering having an abortion? Voicing concerns to her could save the life of that baby and give that woman a lifetime of joy in her own son or daughter (and save her a lifetime of regret). And that close friend who is struggling with a pornography addiction? Speaking out could help him save his marriage and give him the strength he needs to break free. It seems clear that the risk of not speaking out is far greater than the risk of doing so, since the worst that could happen is that we are rejected or ignored, and even if we are, that person will at least know that we cared enough to try (and that we believed in our own message enough to share it with them).
There are several crucial elements that must be in place if one is to take on this responsibility and actively seek to carry it out; and those are humility, consistency and discretion. We must not correct with an attitude of pride and judgment, we must prove by our lives that we practice what we preach, and we must have the ability to choose our battles. In fact, there is no better model of the attitude we should have than that which is expressed so beautifully in the famous Serenity prayer: “God, grant me the ability to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”