I can’t solve everything.

Every day I am bombarded by messages of people wanting me to do more. Donate more. Work harder. Get more involved. Fight poverty. Combat racism. Read this book. Invest better. Challenge inequality. Help the children. Elect this candidate. Take the right stand. Protect the animals. Lose weight. Eat less sugar. Stop polluting. Save energy.

If I don’t do all those things, or at least post about them on social media, or at least share other people’s posts about them, then what does that say about me? Don’t I care? Am I part of the problem?

I do care. I do want to make a difference, yet it seems like nothing is ever enough. What should I do?

I do care. I do want to make a difference, yet it seems like nothing is ever enough. What should I do?

A widely misunderstood poem I teach in my literature courses has offered me a helpful perspective on this sense that any response I make to the demands of injustice and suffering in the world will always be inadequate. It’s called Musee des Beaux Arts, by W. H. Auden. It’s a reflection on the reaction—or lack of it—of people to the tragic death of the mythical Icarus, the boy with wax wings who flies too close to the sun and falls to the ocean and drowns.

The speaker of the poem is contemplating a sixteenth-century painting titled Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. You might expect that a painter who chooses such a tragic subject matter would put the drowning boy in the middle of the painting, with images of melting wings and Icarus’s anguished expression and thrashing limbs as the sea envelops him.

Instead, painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder has placed Icarus in a lower corner of the painting, barely visible, and he shows only two legs sticking out of the sea. The rest of the painting is filled with people and animals who are completely ignoring the tragedy that is unfolding within their field of view. On a hill overlooking the sea, a farmer plows his field. Not far away, a shepherd watches his flock, his back turned to Icarus. A ship sails by the drowning boy, with no one on board showing any sign of awareness or concern. Only one person, a man at the edge of the shore, reaches toward the boy, but he is too far away to do anything useful.

What is the message of the painting, and what is Auden saying in his poem? The speaker of the poem says that painters like Brueghel understood that suffering happens “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” My students, who are used to being hit with guilt-tinged messages about the need to have more compassion, often assume the message of both the poem and the painting is that the onlookers should drop what they’re doing and save Icarus, but that is not the message. The point is that these people can’t fix Icarus’s problem. He is beyond their reach. Life goes on beyond the tragedy, as it must.

The people in the painting cannot solve everything, even if their motives are pure and their hearts compassionate. The message grates against many students’ idealistic leanings. We need to help people! We need to respond! Do that, I urge them, but also realize that no matter how many needs you respond to, you will always be unable to meet millions of other needs. The poem is not saying to ignore suffering. Instead, it is saying to focus on what you can do.

A class I am teaching at my church has been studying the life and letters of Paul in the New Testament, and he has taught me a few things about letting go of what I can’t solve and focusing instead on what I am called to do. Paul was focused on one thing—spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. No matter how many times people and circumstances threatened to throw him off track, he found ways to hold relentlessly to that purpose.

I have seen maps that detail the routes of Paul’s missionary journeys, and they make it look as if he might have planned each trip well in advance. But if you read portions of Scripture such as Acts 16 and 17, you will see that his travel schedule was determined largely by which cities he got kicked out of and which prisons he happened to end up in! Yet, no matter what obstacles anyone threw in his path, nothing squashed his purpose—he preached the gospel.

When Paul gets to Philippi, for example, he and Silas are eventually arrested, stripped, beaten, and thrown into prison with their feet in the stocks. After all that, does Paul tone it down? No! He and Silas sing a hymn to God and pray! An earthquake hits, and the doors fly open, and everyone is suddenly free. Does Paul get out of there as fast as he can? No! He preaches the gospel to the jailer, and the jailer and his whole family turn to Christ.

When Paul and Silas are asked to leave that town, they go to Thessalonica, and what do they do there? Preach the gospel. Some listeners believe, but before long, a mob is after Paul and Silas, so they flee to Berea. The share the gospel there too! The story repeats itself. New believers emerge, but so does a mob. Paul is off again, this time to Athens in order to—you guessed it—share the message of Jesus Christ. Focus.

In Paul’s letters, he also stays focused on the most important matters at hand, and he urges his fellow believers to do the same. Many of his greatest statements deal with focus. In Philippians 3:13–14, he writes, “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” One thing I do. That’s focus. Do one thing rather than allow yourself to be pulled in a thousand directions.

One thing I do. That’s focus. Do one thing rather than allow yourself to be pulled in a thousand directions.

Paul also calls for a focused mind and tongue. In 2 Timothy 2:23, he says, “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” In Philippians 4:8, he writes, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Focus doesn’t happen automatically. It won’t happen at all if I allow myself to be derailed by every new message I see on Twitter or Facebook. It won’t happen if I am paralyzed by the enormity of the challenges in which the world is drowning. I can’t solve everything, but one thing I can do: find my calling and, with God’s help, live it out.