"I want to make a difference" . Yes, it is a cliche. "Vote for Change" is also a cliche, yet it seems to be effective decade after decade. In either case, the presumption is that the difference or change will make the world a better place. In most contexts it is presumed that the world will be a better place for all people. That is particularly true for "make a difference".
Of course, we all make differences all day long. Every breath we take diminishes the supply of oxygen in the atmosphere and adds a bit more carbon dioxide. Every step we take causes a bit of wear on any surface. In ancient temples gentle steps by small men have worn ruts into hard stone. However, is difficult to imagine that every such difference contributes to a better world.
We certainly long for a better world, even when our time in this one has been relatively pleasant. A young, healthy person sooner or later discovers that pain will come to them. The pain of loss. The pain of sickness. And if a person has the least bit of compassion, they will surely be aware that all around them are people suffering. Some suffer a greatly.
There was a time when I could have thought of exhaling as being neutral at the very least. Now I am told that each breath brings the world closer to destruction via global warming. No matter how lightly I tread upon the earth, I contribute to a sort of decrepitude where life is destroyed and buildings are rendered unusable. My impression is that many people have begun to perceive the human race as parasitic at best and perhaps even cancerous. As a Christian, I believe that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. That is the bad news. The good news, the gospel, assures us that God loves us and has paid the price to redeem us all and promises a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more death, no sorrow, no crying, no pain. In no way does that mean that we should simply endure this life and wait for the next. We are called to action. The desire to make a difference is a wonderful Godly trait.
So where's the rub? Why do people speak of wanting to make a difference as though it were difficult, perhaps impossible. There is a lie abroad that discourages us. The lie is that right now, given our current constraints, we make only insignificant differences. First we must grow stronger, richer, wiser. The difference we make should be easy to see, not only by us, but by all those around us. Preferably it should be such a noteworthy contribution, that we must struggle to remain humble in the face of popular acclaim.
It is a terrible lie that snares us and squeezes tighter as we fight to escape it. But a lie is not destroyed by our struggles. A lie is destroyed by the truth. It is the truth that can set us free.
The truth is that every tiny act of compassion, every feeble attempt at patience, every halting effort to love has an eternal impact. Even better, each microscopic contribution to the common good strengthens us to enable us to do just a little better in the next moment. The truth is that we participate in the redemption of the entire universe each time we choose to do good rather than evil. Faith is required because most often we will be unable to see the difference we have made. Courage is required because we may feel very much alone in our efforts. Focus is required because we will be tempted to look about and see whether our contribution is appreciated, rather than look forward to see what we might do next.
Humility is required so that we will remember that we participate in creating a better world but we cannot orchestrate it. God conducts the orchestra. We simply seek to sound one harmonious note, followed by another and another.