Columnist's note: What follows is a reprint from way back in 2015, but it's one I've been thinking about a lot lately, for obvious reasons, and truth, I believe, never goes out of style.
A funny thing happened to me on, of all places, Facebook, this week. A friend of mine, we'll call him Todd--because that's his name--received a message from a young woman he knows that he decided to "share with the rest of the class."
See when Todd and I were in high school, twenty-odd years ago, we were part of an educational activity where we taught primary school students how to speak French. Okay, we weren't exactly fluent ourselves, so we taught primary school students how to count in French and how to pronounce French colors with an Appalachian accent.
And back then, they weren't "primary school students" either; they were all in grade school until they got to "middle school" and went on to become incorrigible teenagers. "Primary" was a word reserved for colors and "Intermediate" was a word my mother had to explain to me from the front of the purple book I graduated to at piano lessons some time in the third grade, which I still think of as part of grade school, thank you very much.
At least Todd and I aren't old enough to think of it as grammar school, so that's something.
At any rate, this young woman wrote to Todd to tell him that he had taught French in her classroom when she was a child and had brought all manner of joy to her life by doing so.
Now because Todd was an incorrigible teenager like the rest of us, he did not enjoy this educational activity. It was a chore that came with a considerable amount of homework and required walking to the elementary school, a task for which we should really have gotten P.E. credit in addition to French.
But he did it because underneath all the bluster and angst and acne cream we weren't really all that incorrigible after all.
And a quarter century later he gets an electronic tug on the leg of his acid-washed jeans from a 10-year-old girl who is still hiding inside this young woman (I say "young" but since we were only about 15 at the time, she must surely be in her late 30's).
Just to tell him that something he did a long, long time ago, something he didn't even want to do, something that he muddled through because it was one more hurdle on the path to graduation, mattered.
We're hard-wired, I suppose, to love the Grand Gesture. Evolution favors the bold. And Hollywood certainly does. We see romance in John Cusak on the lawn with a 50-lb. ghetto blaster hoisted over his head, courage in Sally Field standing on the factory table, determination in Sylvester Stallone running up those famous steps, and victory in the single, well-placed shot that makes a fireball of the Death Star.
But Wordsworth said that "the best portions of a good man's life are the little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love."
No offense to Wordsworth, but I actually prefer Robert Fulghum, whom you might remember from "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," an essay that "went viral" in the years before social media made it easy: "There are those who depend on us, watch us, learn from us, take from us. And we never know.…You may never have proof of your importance, but you are more important than you think."
Bouncing around social media these days is a video called "The Time You Have (in Jelly Beans)," in which the filmmakers convert every day of an average life to a jelly bean and then illustrate that your life is slipping away from you. By the time you take out all the necessary things like sleeping and feeding the cat and washing your hair, and, yes, making a living, you have precious little time left in the average life for all the stuff that Matters.
And that's very profound in a pop spiritual kind of way.
But here's the thing: it all Matters. You're making a difference during all of it. (Okay, maybe not sleeping, although I've more than once come up with a stellar idea during a dream.)
You're doing the stuff that Matters while you're doing everything else, even the stuff you don't like or don't think about or wish you weren't doing.
My friend got a lesson in that, and it turned out to be a very nice lesson indeed. Turns out we were better than we thought as incorrigible teenagers. (Well, Todd was anyway.)
We are hard-wired, probably, to believe that grand gestures change the world. And sometimes they do. History and Hollywood will always favor the bold.
But life, I suspect, favors the quiet moments, the little, nameless, unremembered acts, for good or ill.
The things we do every day, even when they feel like drudgery, maybe most especially when they feel like drudgery, shape our souls and those around us — like water shapes the riverbed.
It is best, I imagine, to be mindful of those things, the things we regard as merely hurdles on the path, the drudgery of getting by, for those are the things that shape our character.
And character is destiny.
And it doesn't get much grander than that.
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