One of the great benefits of riding a bicycle around town is the time one gets to spend alone in thought.
This past week while riding to work, I was reflecting on some recent social events that I had attended over the Memorial Day weekend. My long weekend was filled with birthday parties, barbecues, and dinners on the town.
Our conversations at these events were typically engaging and interesting, causing me to consider different perspectives and observations of others.
Interesting enough, one of the recurring topics of discussion among my friends was that of individuals trying to enact a meaningful difference in the lives of other people, our community, and maybe the world as a whole.
As I rode along, I mulled over the possible reasons why this particular topic keeps arising among my friends and those I associate with.
That’s when a possible answer came to me...as I approach middle-age, I am no longer associating myself with young moms and dads who are busy raising children and who are struggling with unbalanced time considerations of work, family, health, and personal pursuits.
My friends are quickly becoming "empty-nesters" who have newly-found time afforded to them each week. As they enter a new phase of their lives, they are now considering the end-game where they will soon be re-examining their very existence and weighing their personal contributions made to society.
During the course of our conversations, I often hear others lamenting that their individual contributions to the world will be meaningful enough. They believe (rightfully so) that they have so much to offer if only they could find the right vehicle...the right cause...the right non-profit board to join. They want to help but where do they start?
After listening for a while, I will typically ask a simple question.
"What stops you from trying to make a difference in just one person’s life?"
The responses I receive to my question are all worded a bit differently but essentially say the same thing.
"I am not really interested in making a difference a single person’s life... I want to make a big difference to the entire world..." in order to feel good about my contribution...
I find the answer somewhat disheartening.
Sure helping the world in a wholesale fashion is indeed noble...but most of us don’t simply have the wherewithal or the resources to actually achieve this high water mark...so instead of doing something small and meaningful we sit back and let time pass as we wait for a big idea to formulate...and we wait...and we wait...
Making a meaningful difference is typically done in a retail manner...not wholesale. We begin by helping just one person at a time...in a small way.
We don’t need to solve world hunger but rather we could make a difference by volunteering just one hour a week working in the kitchen of a local homeless shelter...
Preventing the overfishing of the oceans and deforestation of the rainforests are great ideals but so is affecting the life of a young man or woman by becoming a big brother / big sister...
Creating and developing a new drug or vaccine to prevent cancer, HIV, heart disease and/or autism is indeed noble but so is being a volunteer to visit terminal patients at a local hospice care center, handing out refreshments to participants on the 3-day breast cancer walk, and/or giving blood at the local blood bank.
Recognition for these types of activities is small or non-existent. There will be no mentioning of your name in the local papers...the world will not instantly recognize your name as they do people like Jonas Salk, the Wright Brothers, or Bill Gates.
Only you will know that you have made a small difference (and perhaps the people affected by your generosity).
You will be an unsung hero...not a folk hero...but that’s okay if your true goal is to simply make the world a better place.
Your acts of kindness don’t need to be extremely meaningful or complex...they might involve letting someone go in front of you at the grocery store...you might hold the door open for an elderly person or small child...maybe you’ll feed someone’s parking expired parking meter...possibly you’ll tidy up a public wash basin for the next person who might use it...or simply turn off the lights when leaving a room...
The idea behind giving is to stop thinking about what you’ll get...and begin thinking about what someone else will get...that’s what giving of yourself is all about...
One of the truly wonderful side-effects of giving of yourself is that it tends to be contagious...smile at someone and there is a good chance that they will smile back...it doesn’t work all the time...but that’s okay...you didn’t smile at someone to get a smile in return...you did it to be nice to someone...
Doing something for no expected return is a foreign idea and runs counter-intuitive to the way most of us are brought up to think. We do things as a part of a transaction...a quid pro quo arrangement.
It’s hard when the transaction becomes out-of-balance...but that’s the sheer beauty of giving of yourself...knowing that you did something good is all the reward that is necessary...
I remember playing card games with my children when they were small...I purposely lost to them on most occasions...I didn’t need to win in order to prove to myself that I could beat a 6-year old child...but winning made my kids feel good...they even bragged to their friends and family...I just smiled and played along with the charade...never once admitting to anyone that I had actually thrown the game in order to save my ego from being publically bruised...I knew...and that’s all that was important...
To me, making a difference in the world is a lot like purposely losing to my kids at cards...it makes others feel good...and that in itself makes me happy on the inside...
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