Ethics in Action: So Much to Do, So Little Time

by | Nov 18, 2016

So many needs, so little time

In choosing social justice work, you’ll look first for your values and base your choices on those..

You’ll also look for the most pressing need and where you have the skills and knowledge to be most effective.

The issue of “so little time” is actually a matter of priorities and creativity.  Every single person has exactly the same number of minutes in a day and week, as long as we’re alive.  We just divide those minutes up different.  “Having time” is about how we set our priorities — where social justice is within those — and how creative we are about what we do.

Simple strategy?

Karl Rove in the 1990s said he would wake up every morning and ask himself, “What ten things can I do today to promote the rightwing agenda in America?” You may not share his values and goals, but maybe you can, on awakening, ask the simple question: “What is one thing I can do today to advance the values I believe in?” Then do it.

The simplest strategy: find first one thing you can do. Do that. Start with something small, and as you are able to do that, consider leveling up. One level at a time.


  • Are you prioritizing raising a healthy, contributing, ethically wise child? You’re contributing to the greater good — and also remember that one key way that children learn to be contributing and ethically wise is by seeing how important action is to parents and other significant adults. Choose actions you can do when your child is watching, so you set a good example. Or, choose actions you can do with your child. Then it’s part of what you’re already doing. Start small, level up when you’re ready.
  • Are you prioritizing your work life, building a sustainable personal future? While you’re doing that, there are creative ways to build a sustainable human future for others. Look for changes in your own lifestyle, and ways that you can contribute financially or with your skills to organizations that work for that larger human community, too. Start small, level up when you’re ready.
  • Are you prioritizing relationships? Consider what you can do together, with shared values. Join a march together. Volunteer together. Experiment together with lifestyle changes that make a difference, reinforcing each other’s commitment. Shared values and shared work create stronger relationships. Start small, level up when you’re ready.
  • Are you prioritizing personal time, fun? Playing video games or hanging out with friends? If you’re only spending time on your pleasure and self-care, look for ways you can care for others, in small and large ways. Caring for yourself and caring for others including strangers aren’t mutually exclusive. You can find time for at least some ways to broaden your scope of caring! Start small, level up when you’re ready.
Look for how you can make at least some contributions to wider and wider circles beyond yourself and your family. And as you begin to get experience, think about how you can “level up.” One level at a time, when you’re ready.

The importance of caring for yourself

The poet, writer, and activist Audre Lorde wrote,

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

If you’re not doing some caring for yourself — which is often most effective in community or in relationship with others — then you’re probably not going to be effective.

You’ll be more effective, creative, and energetic if you take time to care for yourself.

  • Take time for learning and maintaining your mindfulness skills (this is not only done through meditation), building and nurturing your relationships, expanding your knowledge — and not just about social justice and ethical action.
  • Take time for fun and relationships. They’re essential to human well-being. So are healthy eating, movement, and sleep.
  • Be part of a community that supports and accepts you for who you are. Humans evolved to be part of larger groups of mutual care. Find yours.

We can’t do everything, but we can do something

Felix Adler, founder of the first Ethical Culture Society, wrote this about what it can feel like to be involved in social justice work:

“We stand, as it were, on the shore, and see multitudes of our fellow beings struggling in the water, stretching forth their arms, sinking, drowning, and we are powerless to assist them.”

Adler’s answer to that painful reality: we do something anyway, what we can do, even knowing it’s not all. And we join with others who are also doing something. And today we’d say: start small, then level up when you’re ready.

Edward Everett Hale, whose ideas Adler would have known, put it this way:

I am only one, but I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

Dorothy Day, much later, said

“People say, what is the sense of our small effort. They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much work to do.”

This story also helps me to keep perspective.

The Star Thrower

Loren Eiseley, a scientist, tells a story of the star thrower. He tells of going out on a beach late at night – a beach on which starfish wash ashore. All along the beach, people are taking starfish and dropping them into pots of boiling water, to boil away the flesh, leaving the hard starfish body for sale to tourists and others.

All along this beach, the man passes campfires with these kettles of death. And at the end of the beach, he sees another man—picking up starfish, tossing them out to the sea, one by one.

What are you doing?

I am throwing them back out, where they might survive.

But why? Most will be caught in the undertow, will come back in and die anyway. Why bother? He asked as the man threw yet another starfish.

Because, came the reply, this one might survive. And he tossed the starfish as far as he could back out to sea.

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