Mother Teresa was once quoted as saying: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
A very simple, yet poignant expression of how the perception of one’s impact on the life of another compels one to action. This quote also resonates with me on a more complex level. Couched in Mother Teresa’s statement was her innate ability to look directly in the face of systemic poverty and see the eyes of a starving child. It was her capacity to hear beyond the critiques of her humanitarian approach in order to listen to the sheer elation of a paralyzed person receiving love and care. How does someone so unassuming encounter such massive injustices and still find the fortitude to want to make a difference in the lives of so many?
As part of a casual conversation that took place since I have been here in Sudan, a good friend referenced the importance of being able to recognize the “ants” as well as the “elephants.” This statement sparked an intense period of reflection for me. How often in life have we only paid attention to the “elephants” while overlooking the “ants?” The “elephants,” in this case, are the people, places, things, and ideas that capture most of our attention. They are usually the things that we feel bear the greatest impact on our lives, requiring our greatest level of investment. In most cases, we perceive that finding a solution for these “elephants” will bring the greatest satisfaction; or if we fail, bring the greatest possibility for pain, in turn, validating our need for heightened personal investment.
The “ants,” on the other hand, are the aspects of our lives that we often overlook or neglect. These people, places, things or ideas characteristically take a backseat to the “elephants.” These “ants” seemingly contribute to the trivial aspects of our lives. We usually assign “ants” the burden of keeping our minds preoccupied while our hearts remain focused on the “elephants.”
In Sudan, a country brimming with Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) humanitarian and development support, there is no question as to how easy it is for an organization to concentrate its work on the “elephants.” This focus is understandable considering that organizations such as IRD have a responsibility to provide measurable and sustainable results for their respective donors. Questions surrounding the number of direct and indirect beneficiaries a program will target, or the strategic approach that will give rise to collaborations with local governments are valuable inquiries for organizations driven to make tangible impacts in developing nations. But my theological consciousness pushes me to view the work of humanitarian and development organizations through an alternative lens. I can’t help but wonder how an organization would function if it placed the idea of balancing quantity and quality at the core of its mission.
For example, what would be the lasting ramifications on a local community if, instead of attempting to build ten schools and four farm cooperatives, an NGO concentrated its resources towards building two larger schools with each school surrounding a large farm cooperative? The schools could focus on a holistic educational approach that incorporates provisional tracks for the different institutions and vocations needed to sustain the community (education, economic, municipal, religious, health, social, etc.). Adults with agricultural expertise could work the cooperatives while simultaneously training the youth in the best agrarian practices. Children would not have to spend as much time away from their families, and young adults could receive training in human and livestock health practices from expert NGO employees. The impact can be calculated both quantitatively and qualitatively. An organization could foster the growth of the collective educational and social capital of the community while providing additional resources in a manner that allows members of the community to invest in their own well-being. Now, I am aware that there are plenty of challenges to making this model work, but it only serves as an example of how a focus on “elephants” (school, cooperatives, NGO expertise) and “ants” (generational teaching, social/community building, familial ties strengthened) could potentially coexist.
This is one of the many ways I believe Mother Teresa and the humanitarians that served with her got it right. They understood that their mission was not to place priority on one over the other; instead the success of their mission centered on their capacity to see the “elephants” and the “ants.” While we may recognize Mother Teresa for the monumental achievement of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, it is what she accomplished on a micro level, helping those who were impoverished, forgotten, and shunned, that reflects the true testament of her impact on the world. For every press clipping she garnered in awe of her dedication to the cause, she kept her focus on the personal conviction that the greatest two gifts that she could provide were love and self-sacrifice.
This reflection leads me on a collision course with more questions and few answers. How can those committed to helping the world to be a better place find solace in the benevolence towards the individual as well as the transformation of an entire community? In truth, a baby’s first steps are just as important as a person walking on the moon. I assume it comes down to how we measure impact. Maybe, if we begin by redefining how we invest in the lives of others, we can move towards the process of growing to a sincere appreciation of both the “ants” and the “elephants” in the world.