We all know of many people who left the world a little better than it already was. I suppose that it is natural to want to make a difference in this life. We tend to think that only big achievements like leading a movement for justice or finding a cure for a dreaded disease are the types of accomplishments that really matter, but the truth is that small things are some of the greatest things. Sometimes it is that very quiet person that few notice who is doing the most to improve our human condition.
When I think about my own life there are tiny moments that left the most impact on me. I remember my mother and her total devotion to me and my brothers throughout our lifetimes. I recall the time when my Aunt Polly visited me at school and saw that I had ants on my food. She not only took care of me that day but made sure that the school permanently ridded itself of the ants. I think of Mrs. Barry helping me when my mother first became so ill with bipolar disorder by driving us to a downtown hospital emergency room. I carry an image of my Uncle William changing my little brother’s wet pants on the day of my father’s death when most of the adults thought we were just oblivious little kids unaware of what had happened. I feel thankful for my friend Cappy who called to see how I was doing after my second vaccine for Covid-19 because she had sensed that I was a bit anxious. I appreciate Carol who phones me whenever she notices that I am becoming a bit overly concerned about something. My list of people who have made the world happier and more compassionate might go on for thousands of pages. It would be difficult to name all of the kind gestures I have experienced like the gift of a plant from Linda and Mickey when they saw that I was confined to my house during the pandemic or a call all the way from India from Zerin just to say hello.
All of the everyday, ordinary acts of courage or honesty or love are what makes the world a better place. Taken together they morph into a movement that quietly overtakes the negativity that so often threatens to drown us in anger and cynicism. There is indeed more than a fair share of ugliness in this world but it is far outpaced by the goodness that is literally everywhere.
Right now I see a young man on my street playing with his little brother. Surely the joy that they are exchanging with each other will make life better not just for the two of them but for me as well. Watching them bolsters my optimism and chases away the distrust that is far too easy to find these days.
How many people arise faithfully each morning to travel to work that seems rather ordinary but is crucial to the smooth running of the wheels of commerce and industry? We take what they do for granted until they are suddenly absent and duties pile up, things get left undone. We miss their smiles, their jokes, their stories, their dedication. They may seem like tiny cogs but if even one of them breaks the system does not run as smoothly as we wish it to do.
We have seen how essential each of our workers are during the pandemic. In fact, it seems as though everyone is essential, and they are. We need our doctors and nurses and the crews that keep our medical facilities clean. We need teachers and bankers and truck drivers and plumbers. We now know the importance of each individual. We can see how they indeed leave the world better by their presence and their actions.
I know that I have made a general difference in this world just from being a mom, a wife, a daughter a friend and a teacher. It would like to think that somehow I have impacted someone in an important way. From time to time I have had people tell me about the meaningful changes I brought to their lives but what I really want to leave behind is compassion, integrity, and example. I try to model the behaviors that I most value. I’m not always the best, but I keep trying. When I become angry or lose patience I simply start over again. I’m a firm believer in second, third, one hundredth chances.
We can’t all be as incredible as Mother Teresa or Albert Einstein but we don’t have to be that outstanding to put a mark on the earth. Our influence may appear to wane quickly once we die. One day we may appear only a name on a family tree but if we really think about it each of us is an important link in history.
I often consider my great grandfather who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. I would never know him personally, but knowing of him taught me about patriotism, loyalty and courage. I saw his impact on his daughter, my grandmother, and hers on my father. I in turn pass down the traditions and the stories from them to my children and grandchildren. I teach my family members who these people whose DNA they share were and how they made a difference in so many lives and ultimately in our own.
I recently saw an amazing photograph of a woman approaching one hundred years old who had spent time in a concentration camp during World War II. She was surrounded by almost a hundred people who were her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren. That one life that survived terror and went on to demonstrate the glorious resiliency of life will exponentially change the world for decades and hopefully centuries to come. That is how we make a difference. That is how we leave our mark.