“The Power of One,” a rousing novel about a young man who uses his boxing skills to triumph over the brutality of apartheid, is too suggestive a title to be confined to a single story published thirty years ago. And of course it has not been so confined: the U.S. army has used the phrase “An Army of One” as part of a potent recruiting campaign, and many other groups have made use of the phrase to tell the stories of individuals who made a difference.
In today’s viral media the phrase takes on a more sinister connotation: one act of violence can undermine peace talks in the Middle East that could affect the well being of millions. One assassin murders Yitzhak Rabin and slows the progress of such talks for decades. One suicide bomber can ruin the lives of hundreds of innocent people, not just those he kills or hurts but all the families connected to the victims. One Pakistani scientist sells nuclear equipment on the black market and speeds the proliferation of planet-destroying weapons. One shadowy billionaire finances think-tank propaganda that causes working people to vote against their own interests. One Limbaugh or Gingrich can polarize the political culture of a whole nation with sneering and fear mongering. And one minister in a tiny church in Florida who threatened to burn the Qu’ran can inflame Muslim paranoia worldwide.
Likewise our individual power to do good: Manhattan’s Mayor Bloomberg unequivocally asserting the constitutional right to religious freedom; Greg Mortenson building schools for Afghan girls that do more to end terror than billions of defense dollars; Henry Kissinger transcending decades of pitiless realpolitik and campaigning for the abolition of nuclear weapons; Bill McKibben fighting tenaciously to wake us up about the urgency of global climate change.
These high-profile examples of the good and less than good are symbolic of the power all of us have to affect our surroundings and the quality of our relationships at work, at home, and in between. They confirm the deep connection between us all, irrespective of whether we are polarized and alienated or inclusive and reconciled. They confirm the true context of the power of the individual, which is that we are one on this planet, interrelated and interdependent, and we possess the native capacity to be loving and truthful in our influence, a capacity that can overcome our mass tendency to accept myths and simplified enemy-images.
Never before has the planet been in a place where civilizations numbering in the billions can either clash or draw closer by means of individual actions. These great cultures cannot divorce each other. Never before in history has our species been in a place where each of us must cooperate in private acts of restraint and change if we are to avoid elsewhere what occurred in Pakistan during the worst of the flooding, when temperatures rose to 129 degrees. The intensity of that flooding itself, along with the punishing heat, were almost certainly caused by human activity feeding into global climate instability.
Suddenly the old radicalism of loving—or at least cooperating with—supposed adversaries has become oddly mainstream and practical—a new kind of realism that contrasts with the airy idealism of thinking that we can solve all our problems with violence, either the state violence of the politically powerful or the terrorism of those who feel powerless.
The power of one multiplies seamlessly into the greater power of the many. What might be the nature of the vibrations, to which each of us adds our tiny contribution, that move like waves through the great webs of worldwide communication? Will it be that pervasive standby, “us versus them,” so easy for demagogues and media moguls (or ministers of tiny churches) to manipulate? Or will it be “we’re in this together; how can we make it all work for the greater good of the whole?” Both through the power of one and the power of oneness, we affect reality. How shall we use this power? There is no way not to make a difference. What kind of difference do we want to make?