Monday, July 16, 2012

That's How the Light Gets In...

A few years ago, I started a non-profit whose mission was “to empower individuals with the knowledge that one person can make a difference and to provide our community with opportunities to be involved in making that difference.”   It was a good thing; a grassroots effort that grew organically from discussions among a group of college students about a genuine desire to do good in the world and make a positive difference.  It grew into a respectable little “movement” for a while. 

The charity played on the concept of revolution; asserting that anytime someone performed an act of kindness for another person, no matter how small, the world was genuinely changed in a positive way.  If enough of those tiny positive changes were made, momentum would build.

But, it ended abruptly.  An ending that I couldn’t do anything about, ordered by higher ranks than I could stand up to, initiated by a proven lie.

The experience was a lesson in inspiration; many good things came of it.  It was also a lesson in what not to do.  I threw myself into it more than I should have and sacrificed too much in doing so; a common problem among people who attempt such endeavors, I understand. 

It left a bad taste in my mouth and changed how I look at making a difference.  It profoundly altered my understanding of power.  It played a role in my journey to rethink faith.

“I feel like there is a battle going on all the time between light and dark, and I wonder sometimes if the dark has one more spear.”   
- Tom Waits quoting Fred Gwynne

Even though I don’t look at things the same way anymore, when I see someone deliberately send a little good out into the world, I still see it as an act of revolution.  It’s easy to be cynical and skeptical in this world.  It’s easy to let the darkness in and take over.  It’s a tough place, this world.  But I’m always amazed at how powerfully the light shines when it’s let loose, even for a little while.

Me and some friends did something like that once.  The college students I worked with that led to the formation of the charity in question took a trip to a neighborhood bar and grill in St. Louis.  We each brought an extra $5 bill with us.  We pooled our money and looked around the restaurant to pick our unwitting victim.  We found a family with about three kids who were enjoying a Saturday night meal and asked the hostess at the restaurant to take all of our $5 bills and cover their tab, giving whatever was left as a tip to their waitress.  When she came back, she had tears rolling down her cheeks and told us it had “made the family’s night”.  She said it also made her night, too. Well worth a mere $5.

And just yesterday, my daughter and I went on one of our dates to St. Louis.  There is major construction happening on Highway 40, the main road around the city.  Traffic is continually backed up for miles.  As we crossed the bridge from Illinois to Missouri, cars are forced to merge from four lanes to two.  In those situations, I try to remember that it will go faster if we all let a car or two in front of us, so when I saw a car waiting to pull in, I waved the driver in.

An elderly African American woman dressed in her Sunday morning best and with panic on her face, turned and looked at me, waved when she saw I was letting her in, and joyfully blew me a bunch of kisses.  She had two lanes to cross and needed to get over to an exit.  As she made her way into the second lane, I was able to pull up next to her, and she yelled “God bless you!” repeatedly through her open windows.  She blew more kisses.  I blew some back.

It was obvious that she was very nervous – almost panicky – about crossing two lanes of traffic on the busiest highway in St. Louis, especially when drivers were zigging and zagging everywhere, trying to get ahead.

I didn’t think anything of letting her in front of me.  But it obviously totally made her day.

And her joyful response of “thank you’s” and blown kisses more than made my day.  It’s 36 hours later, and I still keep thinking about it and smiling about it.

I know it’s petty, but I don’t like it when you let someone into your lane and they don’t even acknowledge you.  That’s almost as bad as the ones who force their way into your lane without being waved in.  But this old lady reminded me that some people are still nice.  And I needed that reminder.  Maybe I reminded her of that, too.  Maybe she didn’t need that reminder, but for all I know, maybe she did. 

And this mean ol’ world we live in got a teensy bit brighter for both of us yesterday.

I may not bang the drum of world-changing positive revolution like I used to, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still exist.  I may look at the world differently and think differently, but good is still good.  And it’s universal. 

On those days that the world’s out to get you, try and remember that.

“Ring the bells that still can ring.  Forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack…a crack…in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”  
 - Leonard Cohen

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