There is a story about a kind, quiet man who prays in the Ganges River every morning. One day after praying, he sees a poisonous spider struggling in the water and cups his hands to carry it ashore. As he places the spider on the ground, it stings him. Unknowingly, his prayers for the world dilute the poison. The next day the same thing happens. On the third day, the kind man is knee deep in the river, and, sure enough, there is the spider, legs frantic in the water. As the man lifts the creature yet again, the spider asks, "Why do you keep lifting me? Can't you see I will sting you every time, because that is what I do?"
“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coal-mouse (a small bird) asked a wild dove.
“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.
“In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coal-mouse said.
“I sat on a fir branch, close to its trunk, when it began to snow–not heavily, not in a raging blizzard–no, just like in a dream, without a wind, without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the 3,741,953rd dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing, as you say, the branch broke off.”
Having said that, the coal-mouse flew away.
You see, it takes just one snowflake to make a difference.
But every once in a while (well, a bit more often than that) we are pestered by the question, “Does what I do, or give, or offer, make any difference? Does it matter? Does it mean anything?” (Especially in today’s world.)
This week a group gathered in Columbus, Ohio with my good friend Jason Barger (Thermostat Culture) to talk, debate, deliberate the subject of making a difference and authentic leadership. Beginning with the certainty that leadership is not a device. Or a tack-on skill. Or only for those with the proper business card. Authentic leadership lives in every one of us, and is born in the willingness to create a space where another person can shine.
We had the expected discussions about numbers. You know, our national paradigm. How many? How big? How fast? How new?
Without adequate answers to those questions, we concede that there must be little to show for our efforts.
I reminded them of David Orr’s quote. I use it often. “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind.”
So, there’s a paradigm shift for us. Our focus—on making a difference—will be predicated on the primary question. If we begin with, “How successful are you?” that becomes our metric for what matters. No wonder we can spiral into doubt, gloom, comparison and envy.
But what if… we ask a different question, using a different paradigm? Let me tell you a story. Howard Behar (former President of Starbucks) gave us this gem.
Jim lived in a nursing home across the street from a Starbucks in Santa Monica, CA. Every day at 2 pm Jim would walk over for his blueberry muffin and black coffee. Every day the baristas could count on seeing Big Jim (their nickname for their 6’6” new friend). They would laugh and chat and tease and find ways to be open and warm. Because the staff was drawn to Big Jim, they would jot notes on his coffee cup or on the sack that carried his muffin. “Hope you have a good day.” “Keep smiling.” “We’re glad you are our friend, Big Jim.”
One day at 2, no Jim. 3… then 4… One of the managers carried a coffee and muffin across the street to the nursing home. “I’m here to give Jim his coffee,” he told the woman at the desk.
“I’m sorry to tell you this,” she said, “Jim died in his sleep last night.”
It was a sad day in the Starbucks store. The next day, one of Jim’s children dropped by to ask a favor. “Is it possible for all of you to attend Jim’s memorial service?” They said yes, found a way to cover the work assignments, and the entire store afternoon staff attended.
When they walked into the room where the service would be held, there were round tables with chairs. On the tables? All the cups and sacks with the notes. Big Jim had saved every single one of them.
Yes indeed. Just one little thing can make all the difference.
So, what if we begin our day with this question “In what ways today, can I nurture and inspire the human spirit, raise the flag of compassion and make a fellow human glad to be alive?” (FYI; if you are looking for the ROI on kindness, you’re asking the wrong questions.)
Of course, life’s glitches can leach any spirit of graciousness. I’m in the airport (here in Columbus) before returning home to Seattle today, this question about making a difference still swirling, my flight is delayed, meaning I will miss my connection in Chicago. I call customer service, “Can you get me on a later flight.” She says, “My screen tells me you will land 30 minutes before your departure, so there is no problem.” “But our plane hasn’t left here yet,” I say. “My screen tells me it departed at 9:03,” she insists. “That was 40 minutes ago,” I say politely. “Yes,” she says, “so you’ll have plenty of time.” “You know I’m still standing in the terminal, and the plane is still here, right?” “No,” she says, “Because I can only go with what my screen tells me.”
That impelled me toward the shop where a bag of dark chocolate and caramel whispered my name. And reminded me that there’s always more to reality than what the screen tells us.
Now I’m now Charlotte (instead of Chicago) and will make it to Seattle by late tonight. Someday I’ll do a book about the Sabbath Moments that have been written in airport pubs. I will say this for certain, long spells in airports can be an ideal container for people watching and musing, which, is all well and good until worry about life’s fickleness morphs into existential angst, an opportunity to weigh and measure, and find some reason why I’ve come up short on this road toward success. Lord help us, and down the rabbit hole we go… So, just before the precipice of self-pity, I put my earbuds in and crank up my friend Bruce, and sing along; This Little Light of Mine, and smile, and laugh out loud. People do look and point and probably guess that I’m a resident of a weird island near Seattle.
Okay, back to our paradigm change. Here’s what I love. Our new question is focused outward. Today… give, try, fall down and get back up, hug, speak from your whole heart, and whenever you can, lavish excessive compassion and mercy on anyone who crosses your path. Who knows, you may even love someone “into existence.”
And after, if asked, “Was it successful?” we can answer truthfully, “I don’t know. But I do know that it mattered.”
There is nothing Pollyanna about this. In fact, to live this way will cost us vulnerability and an openness to pain. And a willingness to say no to behaviors that demean and diminish.
I am willing to do what I can, with what I have been given, with a full, grateful and willing heart.
I am willing to not worry about the outcome.
I am willing not to worry about what people think or say, or how it will be measured in the court of public opinion.
I am willing to literally, let it be.
To know that, even as a single snowflake, there is enough. In fact, there is abundance, to know that one touch means the world.
Because here’s the deal: the journey to wholeness it not about me becoming something I am not. The journey toward wholeness is about reflecting what is already there. Inside. Making a difference by just being authentically you.
I spent a good part of Saturday in the Horseshoe, the home of Ohio State Buckeyes. Enemy territory for a Michigan boy. (But a great market for evangelization, perhaps.) For the record, I swallow my ingrained notion of superiority, enjoy good football and watch OSU win handily.
From the plane tonight, traveling west, there is a patient dusk, a layer of deep tangerine light just above the horizon.
Quotes for your week…
We want life to have meaning, and want to be fulfilled, and it is hard to accept that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we would like to be. Kathleen Norris
The woods would be very silent if only the best birds sang.
POEMS AND PRAYERS
Whisper Like An Angel
Have you learned how to whisper like an Angel
Have you learned how to stand up to death
Have you learned that life is as strong as its weakest link
Have you learned that truth never rests
Have you learned that love will save you
Have you learned how to whisper like an Angel
THOU, MY SOUL’S HEALER
Thou, my soul’s Healer,
Keep me at even,
Keep me at morning,
Keep me at noon,
On rough course faring,
Help and safeguard
My means this night.
I am tired, astray, and stumbling,
Shield Thou me from snare and sin.
Carmina Gadelica is the most complete anthology of Celtic oral tradition ever assembled. During his travels with the civil service as an excise man, Alexander Carmichael (1832–1912) spent hours with peasants in their huts in front of peat fires listening as they “intoned in a low, recitative manner” these poems and prayers.