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Small Steps, Large Ideals

In a 1940 essay, The Relevance of an Impossible Ideal, G.H.C. MacGregor argued that Christian pacifism was relevant to our lives, even if in practice we could never achieve its goals. It set a standard of conduct that allowed us to assess our own actions and decisions. Perfect peace, MacGregor suggested, might not come in this world. But we could do our best to move the world toward it and to live in harmony with it. The effort to realize the ideal in practice can in and of itself lead to positive change.

One doesn't have to agree with MacGregor's pacifism to see the importance of his argument, or to see that it applies not just to the ideal of peace, but to other ideals as well.

Consider the ideal of a sustainable world. Many of the measures that could bring about such a world are politically and culturally difficult to achieve in practice. But even small steps toward sustainability are helpful and make it easier to move forward to the larger steps we need. Ten million compact fluorescent light bulbs will not cut greenhouse emissions to safe levels—but they will make a start, and those who use them will discover that caring for the earth is not the impossible and frightening task that it might have appeared. It may even have benefits (in this case, lower electric bills). Steps that appear small may, in fact, be very large indeed if they lead to other steps in the direction of the goal.

Ideals, that is to say, do not become worthless because they are hard to achieve. They become worthless if we give up on them—or if we do not value the small changes that can lead to larger changes.

There are two ways of giving up on an ideal. One is to abandon it entirely by saying that we cannot achieve it. The other is to make the best the enemy of the good—to reject the small steps because they do not achieve the goal all at once.

In building for the future, we must avoid both of these hazards. We will not achieve a perfect world. But we can move the world closer to the ideal if we value small steps and have faith that they matter.