In the words of the immortal bard, Billy Joel, “We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.” Over the last year or so, it seems like the fire has grown into a blazing inferno.

From the ascendency of ISIS and troubling actions from Russia, to Ebola breaking out in West Africa and ending the year with bellicose threats from North Korea, it seems like the world is less than settled. And that is just outside of the United States.

Here at home, we face a new wave of racial discord, distrust of law enforcement and a federal government at loggerheads over seemingly every issue from immigration to energy.

A look at the State of Alabama reveals a seemingly intractable prison overcrowding situation, a quarter of a billion dollar budget hole and a continuing battle over the future of education in the state.

We might not have set the fire, but it certainly seems to be burning on many fronts. Sometimes, it seems overwhelming. The problems often feel bigger than any one of us individually is able to manage.

Frequently, we look for the big solution. We seek a one-size-fits-all answer to our toughest problems. In many instances, government seems the likely candidate to craft such broad responses. At the same time, we generally hold such a low opinion of many of our political leaders, it is a wonder we look to them at all.

What we are doing does not seem to be working, so how do we fight a blaze that seems out of control?

We might start by addressing the problems in front of us. Whether it is a child that needs a mentor, an elderly neighbor who needs help in the yard or even a friend who could use a hand finding a job, we need to start by shifting our gaze.

Fretting about the problems we cannot solve, while ignoring the challenges in front of us, will only leave us anxious and feeling impotent. It also dehumanizes the issues we face. Vitriolic debates over immigration, healthcare or energy policy are often more about winning an argument than helping anyone in particular. When we know the faces and names of the people who could benefit from our ideas, service and care, we are more dedicated to the task at hand.

It may not put out the fire all at once, but it certainly takes away the tinder. Over the past year, we have seen how the downtrodden and marginalized in societies around the world are prime targets for those who seek to create violence and mayhem. We do not need to look to an impoverished foreign nation to find those in need of our compassion and engagement. If we open our eyes and are willing to ask, we will find plenty of people in reach who need our time, talents or resources.

While financial charitable contributions are invaluable, we need to also commit to human contact. The difference between helping a specific person or family and donating in exchange for a tax write-off is significant. While those receiving the help may be served either way, we miss the opportunity for our character to be changed in the process. We learn the values of empathy, generosity and service because we see their positive impact on specific people. It is an opportunity not to be missed, both for our children and us.

We may not have started the fire, it may have been burning for a while, but that is no excuse to let it blaze out of control. As 2015 begins, we can take the first steps in extinguishing the fires in our world by helping the people right in front of us.

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