Henry Melvill: “Ye cannot live for yourselves; a thousand fibres connect you with your fellow-men…”

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“Ye cannot live for yourselves; a thousand fibres connect you with your fellow-men, and along those fibres, as along sympathetic threads, run your actions as causes, and return to you as effects.”

-Henry Melvill (1798–1871), influential British priest

Earlier this week, I watched an episode of NOVA, a public television series in the U.S. about current issues in science. The topic was climate change — and specifically how particulate pollution reduces the sun’s warming effects on the earth, and what this phenomenon implies about global warming.

One segment of the show in particular struck me quite deeply. According to one theory, the industrialized nations of Europe and North America threw enough pollutants into the atmosphere to change rainfall patterns in Africa. And this is thought to have been the direct trigger for the devastating Ethiopian famine of 1984-85, which killed over a million people. The fact that the collective activities of industrialized nations are causing global climate change is not new news, of course. But to see so graphically how my comfortable modern lifestyle may have directly contributed to the horrible deaths of over one million people gave me severe pause.

A basic tenet of Buddhism is that all of our actions have consequences, and that we need to live responsibly, as though our every thought, word, and deed has an effect somewhere, on something. Hearing this story brought this teaching home to me quite profoundly. When I turn the thermostat up in my house so I’m a bit more comfortable, or drive to the store because I don’t have the time to walk — these casual little actions I undertake as an individual have their consequences, some of which can ultimately be quite dire.

So what can I, one of six billion humans on this earth, do about all this? In my darker moods, it can feel overwhelming and hopeless, that nothing I do could make a difference. But there’s a fallacy in that thinking. If my irresponsible little actions multiplied by six billion people can cause global disaster, isn’t it also true that my positive little actions similarly multiplied could bring about the exact opposite? The point of this teaching is not to plunge us into despondency, but to rally us to action. I DO have an effect in this world, and my positive actions DO make a difference, no matter how small. I have renewed my commitment to living my life more mindfully and responsibly, and to make an effort to be a positive influence in this world.

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