I’ve often wondered what a difference it would make if people really understood the impact they have on other people’s lives. I’ve certainly had days that were greatly improved by seeing a stranger’s smile or watching a loving interchange between mother and child.
I remember when I was a kid during the Vietnam war. We lived along the route from the training camp to the airport. I used to sit in the tree along the highway, barefoot and tan, smiling and waving at the soldiers as they drove past. For me it was like watching a parade. I can’t imagine what it was like for them, even now. As young as I was at the time, I was aware that many of the young men riding by were never coming home again. I really hoped that the “all American” image I projected would give them some sense of pride in purpose. Even then I was anti-war, but very much wanting to support the troops. I don’t know if it helped anyone, but I’d like to think it did.
There seems to be something about me that makes me approachable to strangers. I get asked for directions even when I’m traveling. I’ve untangled kids from their bicycle chains. I’ve entered into nonsense conversations with the homeless while waiting for the bus. Are these the sort of interactions people take for granted, or could they really make a difference in someone’s life? I’ve certainly had that feeling, like my life has just been saved, when a stranger in a foreign country offered good advice.
I know there are places where I’ve made an impact. Communities where a turn of phrase I used to teach a lesson comes back to me. A hospital where the chaplain suggests I look at the book that a member of the family (ME!) brought in. I have mixed feelings about becoming anonymous in my influence. On the one hand I’d kind of like some credit. I have an ego, and even when I am hiding like I don’t want to be noticed that ego still needs feeding. On the other hand, the blanket acceptance exhibited by “they say” or “you know” just doesn’t come with ready footnotes.
There are places in my life where I’ve actively tried to have an impact. Most obviously this is with my kids. Trying to have influence towards a specific outcome, there is a mixed blessing. I’m pretty sure I have imparted at least as much fuel for the councilors office as I have life lessons. It sometimes seems that the further removed I am, from my students or the people I’ve mentored or anyone to whom I’ve offered advice, the easier it becomes to filter out the garbage from the gold.
I’ve recently been blessed with the opportunity to reconnect with a couple of guys I used to babysit. It was incredibly moving and supportive to hear how much they felt my influence in their lives. I became integrated into their stories (as they have into mine). To know that just being a part of someone’s life can have such a large impact and especially to get the feedback positively is a precious gift.
I would like to pass that on. I would also like to encourage you to think about someone in your past who really did have an influence. Someone who said the right thing at the right time. Someone who offered encouragement for your secret dreams. Someone who said yes when everyone else said no. See if you can find them, and find a way to say, “Hey thanks! You really made a difference.” It will make their day.