President Obama used his 2011 State of the Union address to remind America that, well, we’re not doing so good right now. I agree that we need to do better, which seems to be the common opinion. I was struck by the responses the President suggested though. They were all about infrastructure, clean energy and education, and they were aimed at a rather grand level. Great businesses will build high-speed train lines and invent better green technologies – which other companies will then use – while Congress passes laws aimed at improving education. It’s a State of the Union address, so that’s to be expected in some ways. People like me and you don’t have much of a place in that.
However, most of us do seem to feel the need for America to do better. Why not take those feelings and do something ourselves? I can’t create a tax cut that will help millions of people afford college, but that doesn’t mean I am totally impotent.
Thinking all of this to myself, I decided to create a set of challenges. Three things to do this year. Three small things, things I can fit into an already-hectic life. Three low-cost things, since money is tight. But three things that I hope will help America become a slightly better place.
I got to thinking that, since my challenges will involve small things that won’t require too much money, anyone could do them. They’re flexible challenges; I’m not even sure how I will carry them out yet. So I am formalizing my challenges and posting them here. If you are reading this now, and you’re worried about America, why not do something to help it? My actions for these challenges will not turn around the entire nation, but my aim is much smaller than that: I just want to do my share.
Let me preface the challenges with a few notes. The goal is to stretch, to do something that you aren’t already doing. For example, I give some money to certain charities. Not a lot, but some all the same. That won’t count for any of the three challenges, because the goal is to do more, to expand yourself and your actions beyond what you are and what you do now. Consequently, even if you aren’t doing something, but it’s exactly the sort of thing you might do, it wouldn’t count (more on this in the first challenge). The challenges are written so that they can be interpreted for anyone’s life, which is another way of saying “vaguely”. That’s intentional.
If you decide to take the challenges, I’d love to hear what you end up doing or plan to do. Comment here, e-mail me, whatever makes you feel the most comfortable. Throughout the year, as I meet each of my challenges, I will post updates.
On with the challenges!
1. Read a book
I know, I know, it’s anticlimactic, right? But there’s more to it than just reading any old book. This particular book needs to be one that you wouldn’t otherwise read, not because it’s bad or in a genre you don’t like, just because it is not your cup of tea. I did something similar two years ago when I was taking the Foreign Service Officers Test. The test was supposed to be about politics, cultures… and economics. I was good for a lot of the material, but economics? No. So I picked up an Idiot’s Guide and – without even finishing the entire book – suddenly understood a LOT more about the economic meltdown and the various proposals being offered to fix it. It wasn’t my intention, but I’m much better informed as a voter now than I was before.
This challenge was originally going to be a lot narrower: to read a nonfiction book about science, math or technology. I was imagining it that way because when we talk about (the lack of) education in America we often default to talking about science and math. Those aren’t the only areas we need to work on. And frankly, for all that I have two-and-a-fifth degrees about Japanese culture, I’m one of the best-educated people my age I know of as far as science and math are concerned. (Not economics, luckily, even with my Idiot’s training.) I’m not sure what book I’ll stick in this slot yet, but it may end up being a piece of literature about Russia or China, or a history of the Middle East or Africa. Something about contemporary Egyptian politics would be timely. Remembering that the goal is to stretch your horizons, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Do you tend to read mostly books by male authors? Female?
- Does your education tilt towards a specific area on Earth, such as Europe or North America?
- Have you read books by authors of many ethnicities? Even if you have, is there a notable group that is missing from your personal reading history?
- We could all use a little more tolerance. Have you ever read a book about the trials and wonders of autism? Post-traumatic stress disorder?
- No education is perfect; everyone’s education has a few holes that could be filled in. The nature of our educational system right now means that most of us don’t learn all that much about some of the most important issues of our day – or even the basic information necessary to understand those issues! How is your knowledge of economics? Personal finance? Public education funding? Drug law?
- And the big one, science and technology. You knew it was coming. Both are advancing by leaps and bounds, so your education is out of date. It just is. Even if you are in school right now, you are not using or learning to use the absolutely latest technology, because that is being tested in a lab somewhere. Pessimistic? Yes. But true. If you haven’t done more than take an occasional glance at a popular science column in awhile, why not try a book about biotechnology, the invention of the internet or undersea exploration?
You can combine these suggestions, for example by reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book about an African-American woman and biomedical research that was written by another woman. Just educate yourself a little more. (I’ll post a book list with examples of all of the above in the coming days.
2. Help someone specific.
Finding an outlet for this one may take some work. On the other hand, if you can read this, you can help someone who can’t learn to read. Find a way to make one person’s life a little better. Just remember that this is supposed to be something you wouldn’t normally do. For example, when a car broke down on the way back from a group trip last week I picked up the stranded students. I’d do that anyway, so it doesn’t count. Unlike the first challenge, this one’s pretty easy.
3. Help everyone.
This sounds harder than it is. Got books in good condition? Your local library or high school will thank you for the donation. Their book-buying budgets have dried up, but demand is soaring. If you live in an area known for low air quality, you could pick a patch of abandoned-looking plants and water them every so often. Extra points if the plants are near a heavily-used road. Triple-extra points if, instead of watering what’s already out there, you plant a little garden or install a few pots on your balcony. On the other hand, maybe you have some time on your hands and would prefer to join a creek/highway clean-up or pick up some trash on your own one evening. Find something that no one at all may notice you doing, but that a lot of people benefit from, at least a tiny bit.