I read a quote the other day in a psychology book attributed to Buddhist monks. I plan rip it out of context, reposition it into a Christian context, and then explain how it makes sense of my life up to this point.
"Act always as if the future of the universe depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference."
They certainly nailed it. On the one hand, if we don't think what we do matters, it is easy to either fall into a dark depression or live a life of aimless hedonism. (In which case you need to read Kierkegaard to help make sense of your life.) On the other hand, if we assume that EVERYTHING we do matters to the utmost we will quickly become self-righteous, self-absorbed or both. Or we will be frozen like Buridan's Ass (aka donkey) who doesn't do anything because there is no rational reason to choose between two equal goods.
A few years ago, for example, I came across The Better World Handbook and adopted many of its concepts as a new way to live as a responsible Christian disciple. (Weird, I know.) It had practical tips on how not to support companies that are systematically destroying the environment while also destroying the dignity of their own workers. I learned how to find companies that exist not solely for profit but for greater causes. (Which is why to this day I support Patagonia.) I learned how and why to support the local economy, to severely curtail intentional exposure to negative advertising and received encouragement for riding my bike to work. I felt like in doing these things, I was living a more faithful life, and it was fun to orient everything around the goal of becoming a more responsible consumer. I woke up every day refreshed and ready to meet the world head on.
But two problems quickly emerged. First, the novelty wore off. After a while it was easier to fudge a little hear and there--so what if I forgot to recycle this or that? Was this company really that much better than that one?
And more importantly, I began to think that what I did wouldn't make any difference. I went to a Greenpeace meeting (also weird, but they had free food and it was a nice day...didn't ram any whalers though, it was in Sioux Falls) and the only thing I learned was that corporations are doing so much bad stuff to the environment that what I do doesn't matter. And the story about saving the starfish ("because it matters to this one") has lost all its romantic appeal.
As this relates to family life--I am a better dad (and husband) when I am including my family in a mission. Of course we have as a mission to follow God to the best of our ability. But unless we put flesh on that mission, it's just words. I once asked a group of seminary students to name one thing they did in the last week because they are Christians (not including attending class) and they struggled to do it. No, they utterly failed. When I am actively serving others and doing all those things I mentioned above, I'm a much better leader for my family.
So here's where the Buddhist monks come in. I think they got it exactly right. It doesn't matter how much "difference" you are making. But to live a faithful life means living a faithful life. It means choosing something and doing it/seeking it the best you can. For me, I choose to support local farmers, eat organic food, purchase fair trade items, make entertainment for myself and friends, try to avoid companies that I know are doing terrible things and so on. And just because I often fail/fall short of my own standards AND what I do doesn't seem to make a difference, I can still feel like I am caught up in something bigger than myself. I am faithfully seeking God. And I can laugh at my own futile efforts. Because I can either cry or laugh. And I'd rather laugh.