What is it that really makes a difference in the world? What is it that changes something from an impossible situation to an ideal one? What is it that takes a few small, scattered rainstorms and coheres them together into a perfect storm?
It takes just one small updraft of air at just the right temperature and just the right amount of moisture in just the right location to create a superstorm. Does that little puff of air know that it will be the final ingredient of a superstorm of incalculable power of both destruction as well as transformation? How could that little bit of warm moist air know its real destiny? It doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. But it moves as if it desires something. It moves, like everything in the universe, as if it seeks equilibrium with its surroundings. Equality. Equanimity. Balance.
We love to say “one person can make a difference” even though we never think we will actually be that one person. Is that something we choose? Or are we chosen? We usually think of that one person who saves the day as being of entirely singular force and presence. A superhero so powerful they could stop the speeding train all by themselves.
We assume that everything was one way until they showed up and, through the sheer power of their own individual ability to change things, transformed lead into gold.
But it’s not alchemy we’re talking about. It’s not magic. It’s not superpowers either.
There’s a term used in both meteorology and chemistry: saturation point. Its meteorological use is applied in terms of the making of storms. In chemistry, it is the stage at which no more of a substance can be absorbed into a vapor or dissolved into a solution.
That sounds a bit technical. Kind of dry and hard to put into context. But let’s think of it like salt and water. We know what saltwater is. We know what it tastes like, what it feels like. We know the salty residue it leaves on our skin when we come out of the sea.
If we were to place a bowl of fresh water on a table and slowly pour salt into it, we know the salt will dissolve. We can watch it happen. The water, acting as a solvent, becomes a tiny bit cloudier as the little, cube-shaped, salt crystals slowly disappear. The molecules jump off the salt crystal one layer at a time, shedding themselves from the little cube like peeling back layers from a square onion, until the cubes exist no more. They have become dissolved. Saturated into the solution of the water.
We can keep adding more and more salt until something special happens. Eventually the water in the bowl will not let any more salt dissolve. It starts to collect in the bottom of the bowl and just sits there, not knowing what to do with itself. It just sits there like a wet cat.What happened? How was the salt able to dissolve at one point but then just stop?
Essentially, it’s because the water has had enough. It was up to here with salt and would take no more. It had reached its point of saturation.
This is simple enough to understand, of course. It is not a stretch of our imaginations to picture a moment when the water had become too full. We experience it all the time when we overeat. That one french fry that tips the scales, and then heartburn. Or we suddenly feel so full that we are certain we will explode. What was it that made perfect into too much? What makes not enough into just right?
Going back to our bowl of salty water, which grain of salt was one too many? Could we point to a particular grain of salt and say, “Ah, yes. That was the culprit!” No. Because even within that one grain of salt there are 1.4 quintillion atoms of sodium chloride. That’s a 1 followed by a 4 with 17 zeros after it.
Which one of those was too many? Because that’s what did it. That one, single, beyond-microscopic molecule out of 1.4 quintillion changed the entire solution of the water. The water reached its saturation point because of one tiny molecular speck. Not saturated. Then, saturated.
What if that molecule had decided to stay home that day? Didn’t want to attend the protest. Didn’t want to sign the petition. Didn’t feel like voting that year. Didn’t think they mattered because they were so small that they alone could not possibly make a difference to something so large.
Malala Yousafzai was 15 in Pakistan when she was shot in the head on her school bus by the Taliban, who were enraged not only that she attended school, but dared to publicly advocate for girls’ education against their strict version of sharia law. There had been many other women and girls who had already been shot, tortured, beaten, confined or abused for the exact same reasons. Many at the hands of their own loved ones.
Dozens upon hundreds of women who wanted to learn, who knew it was their inherent right to be educated, and who were ultimately martyred for it in one way or another had gone before her. And yet Malala’s voice was heard over them all.
Following her attack, she would not be silenced. Her voice was heard around the world. For her advocacy of women’s education, in spite of the enormous obstacles against her, she won the Nobel Peace Prize two years later. At 17, she was the youngest ever Nobel laureate.
Was she alone in her resistance? No more so than the little salt molecule that managed to create a saturation point in an otherwise enormous bowl of water. Malala was not alone. She was not the first. She was the one who tipped the scales. She was the one who was finally tall enough to see above the horizon of oppression because of all the women below her upon whose shoulders she now stood. But she still had to agree to stand up.
Rosa Parks decided against giving up her seat on the bus to a white man one day in Birmingham, Ala., in 1955. She was arrested and fined for it, sparking a bus boycott that served in part to change the segregation laws in this country. But she was not the first woman of color to say, “No more.” Rosa was not alone either. She was the one who tipped the scales.
Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai had something in common. They had already been advocating for change long before the moment came. They had already been preparing for the day when it would be their chance to do something that would change the tide of their cultures toward a more equitable and loving society. If every little action they ever took or every new idea they ever learned were a grain of salt in a huge bowl of water, we now know which grain it was that created the saturation point.
What are you doing to prepare for your own saturation-point moment? You may already be well into the process just by being yourself, just by following your heart, learning what interests you, exploring places you intuitively feel you should be, seeing things that will germinate in your heart until their time has come for that one final choice that coheres them all into an action that changes your life and, quite possibly, the lives of countless others.
What are you doing to recognize your own worth and power? Perhaps the question is really: What are you doing that prevents you from recognizing it? Because we all doubt ourselves. We all feel as relatively powerless and insignificant as a loving molecule of salt in an enormous and briny sea of fear and hatred. But we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know the depth of our courage when presented with a difficult choice. We often don’t know who has already laid the groundwork for us to step in and flip the switch.
It isn’t just about doing things that hold the capacity to earn a Nobel Prize. Not everyone is called to that. It’s just about you, really. About your life. Even a life that you think affects no one. Your happiness. Your satisfaction. What are you already doing that you haven’t yet put the pieces together to realize there’s a trajectory starting to coalesce in front of you and you just haven’t realized it yet? Ask yourself what course you’re on. Wonder about the answer.
You are so much more powerful than you know. You have potential in you that only the Universe knows about. Believe that.
Both Malala and Rosa had their moment on a bus, a vehicle of transportation upon which many people can travel together at the same time, often to the same destination. They were not alone. They were among people who mostly wanted to go to the same place but needed someone to help them chart the destination and guide them. Someone brave. Someone small but no less powerful than the strongest among them. For strength has nothing whatsoever to do with power. Strength is sometimes just the act of showing up.
Wil Darcangelo, M.Div., is the minister at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and of First Church of Christ Unitarian in Lancaster, and producer of The UU Virtual Church of Fitchburg and Lancaster on YouTube. Email email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.