Dr. Zhivago is one of my husband's favorite films, so we watch it frequently. Whenever we do, what impresses me most is not Zhivago's doomed love for Lara or the stunning scenes of winter. What makes a lasting impact on me is the film's portrayal of contrasting views of how to lead a meaningful life. Zhivago wants to practice medicine with individual patients, rather than do research, and he writes poems that capture the world as he sees it. For these pursuits, especially the poetry, the Bolsheviks scorn him. He is dismissed as a "dubious poet hugging his personal life." He is also told, "The private life is dead in Russia for a man of any manhood." In contrast, the Bolsheviks want to remake the institutions of society and force individuals to conform to their party ideology. Individualism is a threat.
As destructive as the Bolsheviks were, I think they were right to hate the economic and social inequities of Russia. I abhor their methods and despise their willingness to ride roughshod over individuals. Yet, I empathize with their desire for a more equal society. Indeed, I see a similar desire for change in many of the people around me. My pastor and some of my friends have a passion for fighting institutional injustice (without resorting to abusive tactics). And when I visit other blogs, I see many people who want to change the church or our economic structures or our political system. I respect such crusades and the people who lead them, . . . but they are not my vocation.
I am not a political animal. Oh, I vote in elections and even send emails to my elected officials, but I don't have much passion for bringing about institutional change. Instead, like Zhivago, my calling is to a more personal arena: the one-on-one conversation, the encouraging word, the action to make one life better if I can. Those are the areas in which my personality functions best.
However, that doesn't let me off the hook. The needs and the injustices in this world can seem insurmountable, and sometimes it is tempting to shut my eyes and say there is nothing I can do. But if I do that, then I feel that I am surrendering to the Bolsheviks.
You see, one of the great ironies of the movie is that at the beginning, Zhivago is leading a balanced and productive life. He is serving his community as a compassionate doctor, even as he expresses his individuality through his poetry. It is only after he is suspected of being a counter-revolutionary that he retreats to the country and wallows exclusively in his private life. Because the Bolsheviks have such a narrow view of humanity, they drive him into being the very thing they hate.
So even though I am by nature a quiet homebody, I do not want to retreat from the world's great needs. I may not be marching in protests or organizing letter-writing campaigns or suing companies who dump toxic waste in neighborhoods, but I try to reach out of my personal cocoon and make small efforts to improve this world. Let me give an example. When I was in my mid-twenties, I was considering taking a Caribbean vacation. But the thought of the huge income gap between rich and poor that exists in that part of the world troubled me. In the end, I decided I didn't want to feed the big corporations who ran the hotels and put together vacation packages, Instead, I realized that I'd rather feed a child. So I sponsored a child through Compassion International. They assigned me a boy in Haiti, and I sponsored him for 14 years until he reached adulthood. My actions did little to correct the economic injustices in that country, and yet . . . because of them, one person who might otherwise be still trapped in poverty received an education. He now works as a professional musician.
I think the reason that these thoughts have been on my mind is the number of horrible disasters in the news this past week. The amount of human suffering has been mind-numbing. It is tempting to shut down and think that we can't do anything.
And it's true. We can't rescue all the victims in either China or Myanmar. But if each of us decided to take on one task and do it faithfully year after year—whether it be sponsoring a child overseas, working with Habitat for Humanity, serving in a soup kitchen, or teaching children to read—think of what a difference we collectively could make.