How often do you despair at your apparent insignificance? Between the acts of war our countries participate in, world poverty and the devastation of our climate, what possible difference can we make? Such problems can feel overwhelming and our own meager lives seem so small. Even when we do rise above such feelings of inadequacy, we then might struggle to choose the most appropriate response. What actions can we possibly take at a personal level to affect what is emerging globally?
First of all, you and your actions do matter. My experience is that our significance reaches far beyond our imagination. Even the smallest acts of kindness directed towards rectifying the world’s injustices make a difference. But perhaps most surprisingly and wonderfully, even obscure acts that we may not consider meaningful can make a difference.
Let me offer you an example from my life. Sometimes I write poetry and often I wonder why. What purpose do these poems serve? I scribble them down in a notebook, sometimes share them, most of the time not. But then one day, I received a mysterious letter. The only address on the envelope was:
Catherine Ann Lombard
At the time I was living in The Netherlands. This letter, without any street address or zip code, had been forwarded to my new Dutch address from the Italian post office 1300 km (800 miles) away.
The letter was from a complete stranger in California who had received one of my poems called Lynn’s Visit. She wrote that she belonged to a woman’s group and, during one of their meetings, this poem had been shared with the group. The poem was about how I had been searching for courage when I found it in a woman called Lynn who was disabled. Oddly enough, the letter writer was also named Lynn, and she too suffered with a debilitating disease.
She wrote: “I have been struggling with my purpose even though my life is very full. I have experienced depression and each day searched for the unanswered question: what is my purpose? I have been studying Buddhism and any spiritual reading that might assist me in my search.”
“I took a copy of your poem home and read it the next day. Suddenly, it became so apparent that my purpose did not have to be one of productivity, but so much more simplified. I realized that my purpose is to live my life courageously, with a grateful heart and accepting soul. Instantly, I knew my struggle was over. I have peace with me now, something that I have never experienced before.”
I cried when I read her words, for her search for purpose had ultimately come full circle back to my own search for meaning. Instantly I understood why I am writing poems. They are the seeds of my life. And like a tree that, with the help of the wind, simply spreads its seeds, I scatter poems so that they may grow or lay fallow, burn or bare fruit. I bare these seeds and God (or the Higher Self), in turn, transforms them into meaning.
This story about the poem and Lynn’s letter demonstrates how an unconscious act can bear fruit in a way that is unexpected and, while profound, elicits no fanfare. Of course, we can also make conscious choices to change the world in our own quiet way.
For ideas of how, you might want to see A Path Appears. Husband-and-wife team Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have written a book that describes some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and they provide a roadmap to becoming a conscientious global citizen. They inspired me to adopt a hero rat to sniff out land mines! Who knows what significance that little rat will have in saving someone’s life or limb? All I know is this: What that rat and I can achieve is far beyond anyone’s imagination.
For those who are interested, you can read the poem Lynn’s Visit.
It was during the time when
I was praying for courage.
Not the fierce kind
of lions and warriors.
But rather the quiet steady kind
of ants as they tug
unswept crumbs across the kitchen floor.
And then Lynn mysteriously appeared
for a mere ten days
thousands of miles from her home.
Unsteady on her feet.
Always about to fall.
Hip hinged like a creaky door.
Her eyes did not waver.
Nor her voice tremble.
Nor her dimples fail to flash a smile.
Lynn had the courage I had been praying for.
Climbing each unknown stairway
with a heart of gratefulness
and accepting soul.
Her feet unsteady were so well grounded,
rooted in her deep sincerity.
I felt humbled and in wonder
at how courage is so simple
when the person’s will is bold.
And how prayers are sometimes answered