Tuesday — Every once in a while, we’ve all been pestered by the question, “Does what I do, or give, or offer, make any difference? Does it mean anything?” Sometimes it doesn’t take much to make me wonder.
Recently, I’ve heard people confess, “Why even try?” And I get it.
But I have found that this question (Do I make a difference?) messes with me only when I assume that something is missing from my life. Or that I need to prove something to someone. And it doesn’t help that we live in a culture that assumes “enough is never enough.”
I am the son of a brick mason. I am the eldest of five children. Which means that my summer options, as a schoolboy, were limited. I could be a hod carrier (mixing mortar—called “mud”—hauling bricks, blocks or stone and intuiting the needs of masons not known for their patience). Or, I could be a hod carrier. Being a hod carrier is real work. I mean, physical work. Dog-tired at the end of the day work. And I couldn’t wait to grow up and go to college, and get a real job. My father’s leadership style, typical of Midwestern fathers of his generation, was straightforward, “Don’t loaf. Don’t whine. Don’t make excuses. This’ll make a man out of you.” (I will admit, as a high school football player and wrestler, I couldn’t have asked for a better workout regimen.)
Even so, college beckoned. Real work, you know, where I could make a real difference. And become somebody. And I did. After two degrees and an ordination, I set out as The Reverend. No longer just a hod carrier, or just a construction worker.
On one visit to Michigan in my late 30s, my father and I drove the streets in the small town of Sturgis, drifting in his pickup truck. We could drive for miles without saying much. (Not a bad skill to learn.) The truck slowed as if by volition, and I wondered if something was amiss. Then it hit me. My Father slowed to regard a house that he had built; decades prior. He parked by the curb. And he told me stories, about building the house, about the owner, about members of the crew and about pranks played on the job site.
For the rest of the afternoon, we meander the streets, looking not just at houses or chimneys, but also at the quality of work that has stood the test of time. These weren’t just buildings. They were works of art and labors of love. And then we stopped in front of a house I recognized. Where I spent a summer on a crew, just a hod carrier, building someone’s dream. (But—now parked in front of the house—I realize that I hadn’t seen it.)
And the light bulb came on.
Now, I never use the phrase “just a” anymore. About anyone.
This story resonates all the more now, as so many of us are looking for ways to make our voices matter and to know that we make a difference. I know this for certain: it doesn’t take much to nurse resentment or regret. There are times when whatever we are doing seems not enough (no doubt a miasma of guilt or shame and the vagaries of public opinion).
Over the years I have heard, “I’m just a volunteer (or just a member, or catechist, or aid, or worker, or helper, or teacher, or employee, or friend or mother or fill in the blank).” To each I say, No.
You see, “just a” creates a label and tells us what we are not. And when we label, we dismiss. (Regardless of the label. Dorothy Day once scoffed, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”)
So, how then do we make a difference?
Here’s the deal: Your work and labor is your turf of responsibility. Which is only part of our DNA. Because no matter where we labor or toil, our calling is to spill the light. And the good news? For this we don’t have to pass a test, or qualify, we have only to be willing.
Jesus made it simple, “Let your light shine.” Not, when you get your act together. Not, when you feel noble. Not, when you find a specific vocation. Not, after you’ve chased all the gloom away. Not, after you have the precise words to say.
Just let it shine—kindness, generosity, inclusion and compassion. Because the light is already there. Inside of you. Now.
Wednesday — There is a parable about three stonecutters working on a cathedral, set in the Middle Ages. Each is asked what he is doing. The first responds angrily, “Idiot! Use your eyes! They bring me a rock, I cut it into a block, they take it away, and they bring me another rock. I’ve been doing this since I was a boy, and I’m going to be doing it until the day I die.”
The second man smiles warmly and says, “I’m earning a living for my beloved family. With my wages I have built a home, there is food on our table, the children are growing strong.”
The third man pauses, and with a look of deep fulfillment says, “I am building a great cathedral. It will be a holy lighthouse where people lost in the dark can find their strength and remember their way. And it will stand for a thousand years!”
This would be heady stuff in the hands of Stephen Spielberg and John Williams. But not all lives are even close to the movies. Not everyone feels the nobility of the third stonecutter. Or the selflessness of the second. But we have all felt the heaviness or bleakness of the first. To wonder, “does any of what I do make a difference?”
Let’s be clear: the parable is not simply about work (our job). The parable is about how we derive our value—our self-worth and our dignity and our calling—and how that spills onto everything we do, and everything we touch, and every person whose path we cross.
So, how then do we make a difference?
Yesterday, I wrote about my Father, building houses.
My Father never signed a contract. His handshake was his word. One man told me, “When Jerry Hershey shook your hand you knew you were going to get something you would be proud of. Something that would stand the test of time.”
What did my Father build? Houses.
What did my Father do? He made a difference.
It doesn’t take much to cover our light with a bushel. And there’s a whole lot of fear and worry and apprehension and hurry and the need for perfection that can do the job.
But here’s the deal: what we do, and who we are, touches lives, plain and simple. This matters more than ever, in a divisive world, a world on edge, a world where a kind word or gesture makes all the difference.
So. What if we let our light shine? What if we build a world where people matter? Where humanity blossoms, permeating inclusion and dignity and mercy and creativity and kindness and magnanimity and hope.
Where we walk the earth each day in search of good deeds and acts to carry out. Because how we live makes a difference.
Quote for your day… “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make… Every individual matters. Every individual has a role to play.” Jane Goodall
(Note: Stonecutter parable adapted from Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli)
Thursday — It occurred to Pooh and Piglet that they hadn’t heard from Eeyore for several days, so they put on their hats and coats and trotted across the Hundred Acre Wood to Eeyore’s stick house. Inside the house was Eeyore.
“Hello Eeyore,” said Pooh.
“Hello Pooh. Hello Piglet,” said Eeyore, in a Glum Sounding Voice.
“We just thought we’d check in on you,” said Piglet, “because we hadn’t heard from you, and so we wanted to know if you were okay.”
Eeyore was silent for a moment. “Am I okay?” he asked, eventually. “Well, I don’t know, to be honest. Are any of us really okay? That’s what I ask myself. All I can tell you, Pooh and Piglet, is that right now I feel really rather Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All. Which is why I haven’t bothered you. Because you wouldn’t want to waste your time hanging out with someone who is Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All, would you now.”
Pooh looked and Piglet, and Piglet looked at Pooh, and they both sat down, one on either side of Eeyore in his stick house.
Eeyore looked at them in surprise. “What are you doing?”
“We’re sitting here with you,” said Pooh, “because we are your friends. And true friends don’t care if someone is feeling Sad, or Alone, or Not Much Fun To Be Around At All. True friends are there for you anyway. And so here we are.”
“Oh,” said Eeyore. “Oh.” And the three of them sat there in silence, and while Pooh and Piglet said nothing at all; somehow, almost imperceptibly, Eeyore started to feel a very tiny little bit better.
Because Pooh and Piglet were There. No more; no less.
This week we’ve been talking about making a difference.
Too often we forget that the capacity to be a difference maker lives inside every one of us, and is born in the willingness to create a space where another person can shine.
We get derailed whenever we are tempted (or worried about the need) to keep score. As if our value and self-worth is predicated on numbers. You know… How many? How big? How fast? Who noticed? And what’s the payoff?
Without adequate answers to those questions, we concede that there must be little to show for our efforts.
So. Let us be reminded of David Orr’s quote (modeled so wonderfully by Piglet and Pooh). “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.”
Friday — I confess that this question about “making a difference” can unsettle you pretty good, especially if it’s connected to the way we measure our value, self-worth or success.
After an event (where I spoke), unhappy with my performance, I gave way to score keeping… the internal misgiving (and interrogations) about making a difference, and how a high score was necessary for a meaningful life. Oh my.
And in the airport, before returning home to Seattle, the question about making a difference still dogging me, I peruse the airport bookshop. One book offers inner peace, another balance, another wealth, another a renewed sense of urgency, another on single-mindedness on true success, and yet another some comprehension about life’s most pressing questions. The variety made it awfully difficult to choose, so I settled for a bag of Ghirardelli’s dark chocolate. And that actually seemed to help, quite a bit. Just sayin’.
Which meant I needed to pause. And to take my own advice about a paradigm change.
So. Instead of my insecurity focusing inward, what happens if I focus outward? Today… it is enough to 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. That it was real. That the ordinary is the hiding place for the holy.”
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.
The old Chinese Proverb got it right, “Don’t curse the darkness, light a candle.”
I have an idea. What if we just let our light shine?
What if we build a world where people matter?
Even the small world just around us.
A world where humanity blossoms, permeating mercy and inclusion and dignity and creativity and kindness and magnanimity and hope.
Where we walk the earth each day in search of good deeds and acts to carry out. Because how we live (invested in the sacrament of the present moment) does indeed, make a difference.
And I took heart in this, from John Shelby Spong. “If God is a source of love, then the only way I can worship God is by loving, loving wastefully. I mean the kind of love that never stops to calculate, never stops to wonder whether the object of its love is worthy to its recipient. It is love that loves not because it has been earned. That’s where I think God is made visible.”
A blessed Autumn to you all… I’m loving the colors, and the pumpkins and the apple harvest and the cool evenings.
Here’s our Prayer Blessing…
Faith does not spring out of nothing.
It comes with the discovery
of the holy dimension of our existence.
Suddenly we become aware that our lips touch
the veil that hangs before the Holy of Holies.
Our faith is lit up for a time
with the light from behind the veil.
Faith opens our hearts for the entrance of the holy.
This is how close we are to the holy.
When we open ourselves up to the possibility
that God can be there in any moment,
miracle is all around us.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.