It takes a long time-most of our life-to understand that we can only change ourselves, not the world. A story is told of a wise man in his sixties who said, "When I was twenty years old I thought the world was not as it should have been; I should do my bit to change it. So I prayed: 'O God, grant me the strength and wisdom to change the world.' When I was forty I began to understand how futile my attempt was. Then I thought that maybe I should narrow down my field. I prayed: 'O God, grant me the strength to change those around me.' The futility of this also was borne home to me by the time I was sixty. Wisdom then dawned on me. I prayed: 'O God, grant me the strength to change myself.' "
Swami Vivekananda compares the world to a dog's curly tail that can never be straightened even with extraordinary effort. The sum total of good and evil remains the same, and the world continues to be a multitude of dualities: pleasure and pain, praise and blame, gain and loss, and so on. Says Swami Vivekananda: "I once read a sermon in which it was said, 'All this world is very good, because it gives us time and opportunity to help others.' Apparently this is a very beautiful sentiment, but is it not a blasphemy to say that the world needs our help? We cannot deny that there is much misery in it; to go out and help others is, therefore, the best thing we can do, although in the long run, we find that helping others is only helping ourselves." The world is only a training ground. By doing selfless work we strengthen our character and manifest more of our divine nature. In the words of Swami Vivekananda, "The world is a grand moral gymnasium wherein we have all to take exercise so as to become stronger and stronger spiritually."
If the world is never going to change, do we then keep quiet when we see the suffering of others? Far from it. Our service becomes elevated to spiritual discipline when we realize that we are just instruments in the hands of God, and act according to His will.