We usually think of improving the world as being something dramatic -- saving the rain forests, feeding the poor, stopping climate change. But there are many very small things we can do to improve our world.
Most of the things on my list artistic or participatory. That is because I believe that art increases our shared experience and binds people together. And participation is important for the same reason, because it improves our sense of shared experience and unity.
One could easily read this list and dismiss it as a "smell the flowers" argument. It is not. Instead I see this as a systematic way to redirect a few pennies of a person's funds and attention to chronically underfunded or under attended civic efforts. To save civilization, we first have to have a civilization we care about enough to save. That is my point.
1. Buy a book of poetry once a year. We are only talking about once a year here! Maybe owning a book of poetry will open your mind to something entirely new, and get you thinking along new lines. It also keeps to poets in business, and I think poets have important things to say.
2. Subscribe to one magazine, preferably one with intellectual aims. If you really want to do the world a service, find one that has a low circulation. The Southern Review, The Virigina Quarterly Review, or The American Scholar come to mind. Or maybe a professional rag: Guitar Player, Science.
3. Learn a foreign language. Ok, I admit this is a hard one. But the mistake most people make in approaching foreign languages is to rush it. How long do you have to learn Mandarin? Your entire life, of course. Just stick to it. If you are like me and have long lapses, go back to it. Every little bit you learn broadens your understanding of the world. This isn't necessarily about fluency, although that would be a happy result. It is about understanding other people better.
4. Go to the symphony. I have found this to be a great learning experience. You sit there, and some of the finest artistic achievements of all time unfold in front of you. Music directors spend a lot of time mixing old standards (Beethoven's Fifth) less well-known pieces that are equally great (Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1). Everybody talks about Mozart but few people really know him. Learn. You don't have to go to the Met either -- most cities have some kind of symphony that costs much less than New York, and is almost as educational.
5. Vote. Goddammit, DO IT. Politicians behave the way they do because they know no more than 50% of the public will show up to vote. They know they will never be held accountable. The angriest people are the ones who never vote. And they wonder why nothing ever changes. Even if you vote for the losing candidate, the winner is aware that you showed up and told him to drop dead. The more people who do that, the more politicians have to adjust their attitudes.
6. Go to church. Believing in something and sitting at home is no different from believing in nothing at all. People draw strength from one another in church. You look around and say, he believes what I believe, I am not alone. When you go to church you are voting for your faith. Just as with voting in politics, if you don't show up, no one accounts for you. Whatever belief you have, it is nothing unless you practice it.
7. Turn the TV off. I don't think there is a more destructive device in modern society. It encourages laziness, sensationalism, and discourages rational thinking. Every minute the TV is off is a good minute.
8. Learn a musical instrument. Ok, this one sounds like another high difficulty suggestion. Not necessarily. How about the harmonica, or the ukelele, or djembe drum? Or voice? The point is not to become expert, but to learn a little bit about the theory and dynamics of music so you can appreciate it better. We live in a culture saturated with music, but most people have no idea what goes into creating a simple song.