In the recent film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the wizard Gandalf is asked about his selection of Bilbo Baggins–a soft-spoken, diminutive hobbit–as a companion on his epic and danger-filled quest to rid a fallen Dwarven kingdom of a terrifying dragon.

Gandalf, played by Ian McKellen, hesitates for a moment, before responding:

 “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? That’s because I am afraid and it gives me courage.”

This emphasis on the small acts of good and the power they contain is a running theme in J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy series The Lord of the Rings, of which The Hobbit is a prequel. Power and might have its place in Tolkien’s fantasy landscape, but they are often used as a cudgel by the forces of evil to subjugate and terrorize the denizens of Middle-earth. Through his books (and the subsequent films), the good that is utilized to counter and ultimately defeat evil comes from simple actions taken by ordinary characters.

Saruman is Middle-earth’s most powerful wizard, but as his story unfolds his mad thirst to dominate is repeatedly undercut by the choices made by those he has overlooked and underestimated.  And the eventual fate of Sauron, the ultimate big-bad, is as intimate as it is appropriate.

This geek-tastic rumination leaps to mind for two reasons: 1) any opportunity to write about dwarves and dragons and wizards should not be missed, and, 2) what I saw on a bus in Boston.

It was Thursday, December 20.  I was on the 3:30 Boston Express Northbound, heading out of the city, on my way to North Londonderry.  We had just wrapped up our staff holiday get-together in the Boston office, a happy affair filled with laughter and lasagna.  I was wiped out, but awash in a post-celebration glow.  Leaning against the window, straddling the line between semi- and un-consciousness, I glanced out the tinted glass.

We were weaving our way through Chinatown.  As we stopped at a light I noticed two men walking around a small patch of earth, on the outskirts of a public park.  They were sifting through the dirt, looking for something.  At first I thought they were trying to find a lost item, a phone or a piece of jewelry or something.  Nope.  They were looking for change.  Any silver they found was scooped up and pocketed.

There are few sights like that of grown men standing in the winter cold, desperately digging through city dirt on the chance they happen upon a quarter to sharpen perspective.

That image has stuck with me since. Our theme for this year’s United Way campaign is “a small act can change a life,” and it’s more than a catchy slogan.  There is a reason why United Way markets itself using actionable terms like “give,” “advocate” and “volunteer.”  Ours is not a passive mission.  Lives are changed through generosity, effort and the personal touch; and the changed lives belong not only to those that are helped, but those that do the helping.

That challenge occurred to me as the light changed to green and the bus pulled off.  Even though we were separated by a mere twenty feet and a bus window, it felt as if I was miles away from those guys clawing for change.  They should be more than object lessons.  More than plot devices.

How can I help?  What can I do?  What is my small act, my everyday deed?

Today, tomorrow and 2013 and beyond, if United Way has taught me anything it’s to consistently ask myself this question:  what action can I take to help keep the darkness at bay?

David Johnson is the Director of Marketing and Communications for United Way of the Greater Seacoast