Introduction Save the world.
Where were you the first time you heard those three little
It’s a phrase that has slipped off the tongues of hippie parents
and well-intentioned teachers with a sort of cruel ease for the
last three decades. In Evangelical churches and Jewish summer
camps, on 3-2-1 Contact
and Dora the Explorer
, even on MTV, we
(America’s youth) have been charged with the vaguest and most
ethically dangerous of responsibilities: save the world. But what
does it really mean? What has it ever really meant—when uttered
by moms and ministers, by zany aunts and debate coaches—to
save the whole wildly complex, horrifically hypocritical, overwhelmingly
I for one had no idea, but that didn’t stop me from internalizing
the message. I swallowed those three little words—a trio
of radioactive seeds. They looked innocent enough when poured
into my palm, but when swallowed, they buried themselves
deep in my gut and started to grow. South African novelist J. M.
Coetzee wrote, “All creatures come into the world bringing with
them the memory of justice.” Shortly thereafter, if all is right, the
world breeds in us an outrage over injustice.
At first I engaged my outrage like a true-blue white girl from
the suburbs. I sent letters to the managers of Arby’s and Wendy’s
in my hometown, begging them to stop using Styrofoam cups
in their establishments for the good of our Mother Earth. No
I volunteered in an assisted living facility, screaming the
letter-number combinations for a comatose game of bingo.
Though the residents attempted to adjust their hearing aids, my
voice was too high to register. They screamed, “What? What did
that girl say?” to one another, but everyone just shrugged and
smiled at me sympathetically.
I worked at the local soup kitchen, dragging wet rags across
Formica tables with my eyes diverted straight down, hoping
none of the homeless people would actually speak to me. I was
frightened by the ones that smelled, but even more frightened
by the ones that didn’t smell. The ones that looked like me and
my mom. The ones that I’d seen walking around downtown and
never even known I was supposed to save. I couldn’t name it yet,
but it was the first experience that called the conventional wisdom
at the time—that there were savers and those to be saved,
and that these were immutable categories—into question.
When Sally Struthers commercials came on, featuring little
African babies with distended bellies and flies hovering around
their eyes, I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. I took
it personally. After all, I had been charged with saving the world,
as had my friends and little bike-riding neighbors. The adults in
our lives had drawn a line directly between the suffering of the
world—the African babies, the growing hole in the ozone layer,
the homeless guy who lay listlessly on the bench outside the
library—and our own nascent sense of purpose.
Once, agitated with one epiphany or another, I decided I
would march around my neighborhood—middle class, suburban,
white—and ask people for money for “the poor.” I found an old
glass jar in my playhouse, cleaned it fastidiously, and headed into
the suburban wilderness for my first experience of fund-raising.
It went pretty well, actually. I was cute at the time—frizzy
hair permanently set in a side ponytail, big blue-green eyes with
dark, thick eyelashes, and a pair of magenta Converse high-tops
(it was the eighties). I think that the smiling neighbors, pried
from their daily dose of Oprah, took one look at me, heard my
half-formed rationale, and sympathized with the familiar ache in
my heart. They dropped quarters, sometimes even dollars, into
my jar and sent me on my way.
I rounded the block, growing more and more excited about
the efficiency of my tactic. By the time I returned to my playhouse,
I had over ten dollars. But as I sat on the wooden planks,
my legs splayed, and pushed the coins around with my fingertips,
a bad feeling started to creep over me. I realized that I had no
idea who “the poor” really were.
I didn’t know if I had met them before. There were kids at my
school with less trendy clothes than all the others, but did this
really mean they were poor or just that their parents were strict
or stingy? There were those little babies with the bloated bellies
on the commercial, but would ten dollars really help them?
It seemed like they needed much more. I could find some of
the homeless guys near the library, but they might spend the
money on drugs (by age eight, I’d already heard this warning
many times). And how would I choose which people to give the
money to anyway? Who was the most deserving? How could you
predict that they’d use it for good? What if you gave money to
someone and they were insulted—angry that you assumed they
The questions washed over me like a tidal wave, and suddenly
everything about my initial intention—so pure, so heartfelt—
was murky. I piled the money back into the jar and stared at it
disapprovingly. There is, perhaps, nothing more paralyzing than
a good intention suddenly proven naive. I decided to bury the jar
in the shadow of my playhouse until I knew what to do with it.
If you go to 1718 North Tejon Street in Colorado Springs, you’ll
find that it’s still buried there, along with my childhood illusions
that “saving the world” is a simple or pure prospect.
Excerpted from Do It Anyway by Courtney E. Martin. Copyright © 2010 by Courtney E. Martin. Excerpted by permission of Beacon Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.