The Handbasket is Empty

One of the benefits of having lived so close to the edge for so long is not taking things for granted. I know what it’s like to be facing losing (and then actually losing) my home. I know what it’s like to lose a loved one to addiction, to parent alone, to be afraid, to be facing homelessness, to be dependent on the charity of others. I know the sting and humiliation of throwing my lot at the mercy of an overworked DSHS caseworker in hopes of receiving aid. I know what it feels like to have our names on paper ornaments on the Giving Christmas Tree, where a “Boy, Age 8″ would like some Legos and a coat. I know well the spaces inhabiting our periphery, the margins of our lives, where we all hope to never go, and where hope is all you’ve got if you get there.

So when people talk about the state of the world, of the decay of society- it baffles me. The talking points and even the themes I hear sometimes at church and from the news networks just don’t fit with my lived experience. Contrary to the obtuse bloviating of pundits and doomsayers, I don’t see the hand-basket to hell overflowing- as a matter of fact, I think it’s nearly empty.

Whichever direction you face, you can see people doing good in the world. It would be hard to look past the good being done, it is so pervasive.

In my own life, despite the challenges and sometimes near catastrophic consequences of agency, there were mechanisms and safety nets and hands outstretched waiting to help. I lost my home, but I was able to uncouple myself legally to protect myself and my kids. My children’s father was swallowed by addiction, but there were laws, judges and courts to assure my children were protected AND that their father was protected- from himself and from doing further damage. Addiction is a nasty beast slouching around the land, but there are programs and therapies dedicated everywhere to slaying him. Yes, I was suddenly impoverished and without any child support and no hope of receiving any- but there were welfare programs in place for people just like me. Yes, it was hard to navigate some of it, and it’s difficult to prove qualification- but there are people who dedicate their lives to protecting the poor and needy, and do so without great financial gain themselves. I couldn’t provide gifts for children at the holidays, but how wonderful there are people who care enough to make sure children like mine are not forgotten. I was able to qualify for low-interest student loans and get an education, so I would be able to remove myself from desperation. Yes, work was required of me, but it was work I could not have done had there not been help available. My pride? Obliterated. But also obliterated was any notion or lingering idea that the blessings of any life were somehow owed or earned. “There but for the grace of God go I” is more than an idea.

Pulling back from my personal experience, I see these acts of good expanding, like a beautiful fractal, in the world at large. There are people working all over the world to help and aid the disadvantaged, whether it’s engineering systems of waste disposal in Central America, or digging wells in African villages so all people can have potable water.  There are programs everywhere, addressing every corner of need. NGO’s work to increase access to education for girls in central Asia. There are micro lending programs to help women start small businesses in order to support their families. Homeless shelters and rehabilitation programs can be found in every urban area. Organizations provide malarial nets to curb the devastating effects of mosquito born illnesses.  Children with disabilities who were once written off as expendable now receive therapy and IEP’s and attend classrooms where their needs are not only met, but their lives are expanded and they contribute to the world.  Cargo ships and airlifts of food, medication, and aid workers pour into areas devastated by natural disasters. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers dot the globe working to vaccinate and eradicate childhood diseases and mortality.

It doesn’t matter if this feels inadequate- to quote Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “What we do is nothing but a drop in the ocean, but if we didn’t do it, the ocean would be one drop less than it is.” We are imperfect, and there is grace in our imperfection.

People care. People are willing to extend themselves perhaps more so and with better results than at any time in history. It wasn’t so long ago that the poor were considered expendable. Children were sent to work in coal mines or worse, women could be legally beaten by their spouses and couldn’t vote or get an education, and human beings could be bought and sold as property. These things are, of course, still happening in pockets of the globe- but human consciousness and concern is eroding those spaces, like water over stone. I submit that we are more aware of the plight and pain of our brothers and sisters, and willing to do something about it, than at any time in human history.

There is more to do. Ever so. The work will never be done- but I find awe and beauty in the actual actions of so many of my fellow humans, willing to leave their comfort zones and challenge their assumptions, and to roll up their sleeves and get to the real work of a life worth living.


Some resources for helping:

Liahona Children’s Foundation The mission of the LCF is to nurture the potential of children to lead healthy and productive lives by eliminating malnutrition and providing educational opportunities among LDS children and their friends. The Liahona Children’s Foundation is a federally recognized 501 (c)3 non-profit organization.

Engineers Without Borders doesn’t get the press the doctors do, but they’re doing good work. They run community-driven development programs to design and implement sustainable engineering projects for water supply, sanitation, energy, agriculture, civil works, structures and information systems.

Brother’s Brother Foundation consistently gets mentioned in Forbes and the WSJ as being a highly effective charity. BBF is a gift-in-kind charity focusing on medical and educational needs around the world. BBF has served 146 countries worldwide with over 100,000 tons of medicines, medical equipment, textbooks, educational supplies and emergency disaster aid.

The Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) evaluates the effectiveness of programs all over the world and is a resource for finding methods of successfully fighting poverty the world over.

An article in the Wall Street Journal on Smart Aid for the World’s Poor.


  1. Thank you so much. I do what I can, and I desperately need to hear that my tiny acts are in an aggregate of good.

  2. Thank you so much for this. I really needed this today.

  3. Stunning post and very needed perspective. Thank you for this window into your devastating experience and for your thoughts on the wonderful progress that humanity is constantly making in treating all people with dignity and seeing and accommodating their individual needs. Your example of special needs children is especially a propos since, as you say, only a few decades ago, including during the supposed golden age of the 1950s, they were often literally cast off, put in institutions, dropped from efforts at public education and much, much worse. Now in most developed countries and even in many developing countries they are welcomed into families and societies with love and understanding by people, families, and governments willing and eager to recognize their intrinsic worth and human dignity, and to provide for their special needs. What wonderful progress we’ve made on this and many other fronts in mere decades!

  4. Yes, there may be more evil in the world than ever before, but there’s definitely more goodness in the world than ever before. The one we place our focus on will be the one that grows. I’ve always believed that. Thanks for this post.

  5. Tracy, this is a great companion piece to your discussion of Elder Holland’s talk. It is amazing how wide the divide is between rich and poor, so much so that the rich do not realize the fact that they are rich. We must do what we can.

  6. Excellent post. Thank you.

  7. May there be a road, and my God bless those who help others along it.

    May God also continue to bless you, Tracy, for many things, including the help you have given so many through what you have written for so long along the road.

  8. Needful Things says:

    This was appropriate and moving, Tracy. Thanks.

  9. Melissa DM says:

    Tracy, you constantly teach and inspire me. Thanks for this fantastic piece!

  10. MikeInWeHo says:

    Thanks for this very nice post, Tracy. It reminded me of a recent letter from Bill & Melinda Gates on similar themes.

  11. Alpineglow says:

    Thank you. I too tend to see the world as fundamentally good and getting better, and I think it’s because my work focuses on education and women’s status in the world. The trajectories of both of those are steep and upward.

    For all of the evil things “the world” calls good and all the good things it calls evil, there are many evils it has only recently recognized as evil and worked to eradicate. Slavery, racism, sexism, child and spouse abuse, bullying, a lack of social safety nets, pollution, tobacco marketed to children, and on and on. And there are many good things it has only recently recognized as good enough to work toward providing for everyone: education, economic opportunity, political rights, health and safety, autonomy and choice, human dignity, and on and on.

    To me, it feels so small and lacking in perspective to say that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. You REALLY think it was better back then? I would choose now over any other period in history IN A HEARTBEAT.

  12. Alpineglow says:

    Also, does anybody remember the talk in which President Hinckley talked about how he preferred today’s problems to those of old because they are often the result of our choices (and therefore fixable through better choices) rather than the kind of systemic problems that existed in larger measure in the past? I can’t seem to come up with the right search terms to find it.

  13. MikeInWeHo, I love that letter from the Gates Foundation. What wonderful view into positive change on a measurable, fundamental level.

  14. Tracy,

    God bless you for your tenacity and optimism.

    And thanks for the shout out to Engineers Without Borders. I have worked with EWB and have witnessed their good work.

  15. Brandon- yes, they are! My example from the post of planning sanitation and waste disposal in Central America came from an engineer friend who volunteered for them for 6 months.

  16. A plug for people volunteering in high schools to tutor, to be another body to help. When I worked in one, I just couldn’t help all the kids who needed help. We had many people willing to hang signs and do wonderful things for teachers…but people were afraid to work with the actual kids or felt they didn’t have the skills. The kids didn’t need a fancy new program. They needed people willing to sit down with them for half an hour and explain a quadratic equation. I still can’t figure out why I didn’t see more volunteers when I knew so many people who loved to serve. It was like people are afraid of teens…who are desperate for someone to just sit with them, to take the time. Otherwise, they give up and then you have a host of other social problems on your hands.

  17. That is good for you but what about those scared little children afraid to go asleep ready to be victimized by a family member, or trying to hide those bruises so people dont ask you what happened, what about having your children ripped away from you by the government because they believed someone’s lies, and children ruined by the separation. There is so much wrong with the world that wont be right until the Lord returns, I for one dont wont to live in fear no more.

  18. Babs, one of the points of the posts is that those horrible things you describe are actually less common now than ever before. The Lord will return when he decides to no matter what state the world is in, so how about let’s make it the best place we can in the mean time?

  19. Refreshing… I always felt the same way.

  20. Owen, what’s your source for claiming that rates of child abuse have decreased? I’m really curious.

  21. I’m not willing to get into data mining and statistics- a quick google search shows a myriad of websites for states, locales and other countries. But what that tells me is that child abuse (of all kinds) is legally actionable, is being monitored, and is more a part of the awareness of people and a cause for concern the world over. Child abuse, as a whole, is nothing we dismiss or consider a “private” or “family” problem, as may have been done in years or centuries past. I stand by my statement that people care more than ever, are more willing to do something, and the trends are moving in the right direction, “like water over stone”. Imperfectly? Yes. Is even one harmed child okay? No. Again, even the fact we are able to have this conversation speaks that we are facing the right way and moving in the right direction as humanity.

    I do realize for a child experiencing abuse, statistics are meaningless. If you know of a child being harmed, it’s a moral, spiritual and legal obligation to report. (This is why we have reporting laws for educators, law enforcement, medical and mental health professionals.)

  22. @alpineglow I think this is the talk your thinking about from President Hinckley, who, by the way, seems to agree with Tracy M about the state of the world. Here’s the quote:

    “But of all the challenges that have been faced in the past, the ones we have today, I believe, are most easily handled. I say that because they are manageable. They largely involve individual behavioral decisions, but those decisions can be made and followed. And when that happens, the challenge is behind us.”

  23. Agreed! I don’t get the doom and gloom and hand-wringing so many SS and RS lessons cycle into. I know SO many people doing SO many great things! It’s amazing. Thanks for the heads-up on those organizations–EWB is new to me.

  24. Im not trying to be mean but I do think you live in a bubble and thats ok, but reality in the real world is abuse is rampant, rights are taken away from people daily. I am not from Utah , there are more people living in poverty than ever, children are harmed on a daily basis and the sad thing most people think its normal, outside of Utah there are plenty of atrocities to all walks of life. I love the prophet dearly but imagine if he was one of those children being gang raped in India where most of those crimes against woman are not even prosecuted.

  25. Babs, with all due respect, re-read the original post. If you think I still live in a bubble, I don’t really know what to say to you. I’m not denying there are still problems in the world, and I myself have experience tremendous personal trails. I don’t live in, and have never lived in, Utah. I’m in a major east-coast metropolitan area, after having spent nearly 3 decades in the San Francisco area.

    Regarding India, there was a worldwide response to that rape; we no longer turn our collective heads and avert our eyes. Human rights activists jumped on India, and reform is coming. Which further supports my point. I believe we’re doing better than ever before, and hold firmly to that fact.

  26. Here is the statistics in India, one outcry is not going to solve the problem, there are many countries besides India, especially Muslim Countries where no right exist. Its nice, very nice that you can see the good side of life but I feel the sufferings of the people far outweigh the good, though it is good to see when people are helping others.

  27. Babs, I’ll engage you one more time, but I think we have a fundamentally different point of view. I’m looking at all that *is* being done, and you are pointing out all that is *not* being done. Both are real, and I acknowledge, repeatedly in the post and in the comments, that we live in an imperfect world.

    To your example of the Muslim world, I have a close family friend who works internationally in legal reform. She’s devoted years of her professional career to the Muslim world, and has even lived in-counrty for several of those years. She’s worked with governments to establish rule of law, women’s rights, and protections of many kinds for women and children, and for all citizens. In. The. Muslin. World. Progress is being made.

    Bad news makes the news, but good things are happening, too.

  28. Thanks anyways Tracy for your replys, I guess we just see it differently but it is nice to see that the positives are there, :)

  29. MikeInWeHo says:

    Babs: I don’t hear Tracy saying that the world is good everywhere, or that terrible things aren’t happening in many places. She is no Pollyanna, believe me!

  30. yourpeople says:

    Yup, terrible, unimaginable to many things happen to countless people every day. But I bet those things have been happening for a loooooong time. The improvement is those abuses are no longer quite so invisible. If we KNOW about it, that is a move in the direction. If we can act on that knowledge, stand in solidarity with victims, encourage political reform, label the problem–those are far from solutions, but so much better than not acknowledging and discussing abuses. I have lived on 4 continents and I have seen generational improvement everywhere. Younger people are less sexist, less racist, less classist, in general, than their parents and grandparents. I think that is something. It is NOT perfect. But better.

  31. I really loved your thoughts here. I, too, think there is a lot of good in the world. I’m sad when people throw out the whole system by saying the world is getting more wicked. That seems too simplistic.

  32. melodynew says:

    Beautiful and true. I personally think the bad folks are getting bad-er and the good folks are getting good-er. It feels like we’re in an accelerated process of sifting ourselves either as chaff or wheat; separating as sheep or goats. “Dear Lord, help me be wheat. Or sheep. Or a wise virgin.” (though it might be a bit late for me on that last one.) Thanks for this great essay, Tracy. It feels good.

  33. Are people getting “badder” and “gooder” or do we just know more about them now?

  34. Beautifully said. I remember once seeing one of the old Phillips commercials (“You have to admit it’s getting better, it’s getting better all the time”), and I asked my dad if he thought what it said was true. He thought a moment and said that he thought it was both getting better and worse. And I realized the principle of opposition in all things applied–just as there is more capacity for bad things, there is SO much more capacity for good. The world is not just getting worse around us, as our church rhetoric sometimes tends to assert. We need to remember we make a difference, and because of the tools we have today we can make such a difference. Thank you for saying it so well.

  35. Great post, Tracy. A wonderful response to the too-common hand-wringing and claims that the world is full of more bad than ever before.

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