Somewhere, beyond time and place

Reviewers are using words like “remarkable,” “history making,” and “moving” to describe Partners, the latest album of legendary singer Barbra Streisand. In its first week, her 34th album topped the Billboard 200 making Streisand the only recording artist to have a number one album in each of the last six decades.iStock_000048081726Medium

As you might guess from the album’s title, Partners pairs Streisand with well-known artists like Billy Joel, Michael Bublé, Stevie Wonder and even Elvis Presley (who is said to have been resting comfortably well before the recordings were made). Don’t ask.

But it was the duet with Josh Groban that caught my ear. “Somewhere” is the love theme in the musical and movie West Side Story, produced on Broadway in 1957 and later on the screen in 1963. It’s the story of rival New York City gangs.

I first heard “Somewhere” when I was in high school. Like others of school age, I suppose, I was taken with the idea that there’s a place for each of us. In West Side Story, the “place” is a life of peace, quiet and open air for the musical’s young couple. They dream of being far away from New York City’s then gang-infested Upper West Side where they lived. But for any of us, wherever we are today, our “place” may be a life of hope, love and purpose. For others it could be a place of health, family and food.

As my senior year drew to a close, it was time for my classmates to choose our class song. There were three on the list, one of them, “Somewhere.” For me, the choice was a no-brainer. But there were 300-plus other brains voting, so it was no shoe-in.Remarkably, “Somewhere” won by a landslide.

I was pretty tight with some talented fellow musicians, and we approached the graduation committee about singing it on the big night. They agreed. I wrote a six-part arrangement. It was almost surreal to stand in front of 2000 people and sing about a place and time for each of us.

Last night, as I listened to the Streisand-Groban duo, I found myself back at my high school graduation singing with my friends. The scene was vivid, as if it were taking place at that moment. I looked across the gymnasium at my parents who were about 100 feet away sitting in the bleachers. I saw my mom wiping her eyes and my dad beaming.

I wondered what they must have been thinking. And it came to me: pride and love—probably a similar pride and love that others were sharing. Suddenly, I felt a rush of pure love wash over me, breaking through the current moment. In much the same way that my parents felt pride and love, I felt it, too. “How could I have been given such wonderful, loving parents?” I wondered.

Today, my understanding of “place” is different than it was then. Now, it’s less about a physical location, bounded by time and (seemingly) unconnected happenings, and more about how I see things. Maybe “somewhere” isn’t “out there” after all. Maybe it is “inside”—in the ways we think, imagine, hope, dream, care and love.

Perhaps that’s the way “place” is built, one thought at a time. In much the same way there we’re building our place, others are building theirs every day and every moment. We catch glimpses of this phenomenon at unusual times, like when listening to a Streisand-Groban duet. It was if my parents reached across time and space to reaffirm my place and give new meaning to the words in “Somewhere”—

“Hold my hand and we’re halfway there. Hold my hand and I’ll take you there.”

You may be able to listen to “Somewhere” (unless it’s been taken down) by clicking  here.

West Side Story Story by: Arthur Laurent – Music by: Leonard Bernstein – Lyrics by: Stephen Sondheim

Stories

Stoplights, for the most part, are dutiful little creatures.

Yesterday, I spent about 20 seconds at one waiting for the much-coveted green glow. It was one of those days when the world seemed very clear and sharp—you know, a time when light and shadow create crisp lines on the ground and a few carefully quaffed clouds float overhead?

We’re part of a much larger, infinite library of stories—some connected, others seemingly not.

Being a little disconnected from beauty of late, I’m not sure I would have noticed the splendor of the moment had it not been for the stoplight creature.

Life in one small town

It was sort of a “put your life on hold” instant in which I mentally returned to my days as a young boy. I grew up in a small Washington town in the middle of a desert so flat you could almost see forever. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know (firsthand, at least) that not all towns were that small and vertically challenged. It also didn’t seem to have much of a past–certainly not like the reach back of a Plymouth Rock, or Paris, or a Mayan ruin. It was recent history that, for this small town, seemed to date back only a few dozen years when the area was transformed from farmland to a nuclear weapons complex in World War II.

Those were good times, though. I vividly remember my dad, a kind and soulful man with a big heart, entertaining me with stories of his childhood. No matter how often I begged him to repeat them, I never grew tired of the tales about his brothers, his dad, his aunts and uncles. And although they changed ever so slightly in the telling, their essence remained constant. Now, as I reflect on them, they were less about the characters in his family and more about how he was shaped by the experiences that, to a young boy, were absolutely awesome to hear.

Another small town

My mind returned to the moment. I was the only car at the stoplight, this time in a small southern town that’s been my home for 12 years. The sun tried to bake through my black hoodie, but the cold temperature outside got in the way. And then, in a spike of clarity, I realized that everything around me was part of a larger story going on almost unnoticed. There was the story of the huge gnarled tree to the right of the car. And there was the packed yellow building across the way where you could buy takeout. There was the elderly man walking with the aid of his cane. And the paper cup tossed in the gutter.

And then there was the story of the road itself, named “Whiskey” because in the 1800s it was used to run whiskey and rum to the north. Today, it’s the major north-south thoroughfare through the town. I watched as drivers sped along while talking on their cell phones, numb to the stories of the trees, the takeout joint and the man with a cane.

In those brief moments, I was reminded that everyone and everything has a story. If you were that tree, what would your tale be? If you were your dad, what stories would you tell you?

Listening and telling stories is one way to connect to the larger narrative of which we’re part. We’re richer for having had the experiences. It’s a wealth without tangible measure. Yet, we’re beyond just our story. We’re part of a much larger, infinite library of stories—some connected, others seemingly not. All of us are authors.

The traffic light turned green. It had been only a 20-second moment in the middle of eternity, yet it was so rich. A few minutes later, in a crowded grocery store, I pushed the cart past the barrister at Starbucks and by a senior Asian woman making sushi. She spoke in broken English. How did she get to the United States, I wondered. What was her story?

So many people whose lives, if lived out loud, would fill volumes.

Writer’s note

I’ve long been a believer that we’re all connected in some way. And, as I was writing this post, I received an email from a longtime friend—perhaps I should call her a soul mate. The timing and topic of her message were quite extraordinary. She wrote:

One reason I thought of you is because I read an interesting article in Guideposts.  (Yes … I’ve reconnected with that interesting little magazine of short inspirational stories!)  In the January edition, there’s an article by psychologist Edward Hoffman entitled “This Way to Memory Lane.”  The crux of it is that “science has discovered that nostalgia itself is good for us.”

I’ve always been so nostalgic about our past … growing up in Westinghouse Hanford with people like John and Charlie.  I don’t think that I’ve been stuck there, although as a “Cancer” I may have a longing for some of what has passed.  Now I find out that reflecting on the past is good for us… “waxing nostalgic from time to time doesn’t trap us in the past—it is healthy for our body, mind and spirit in the present.”

You can find Hoffman’s article here.

Doing nice

Mom and dad’s advice about being nice to friends, strangers and animals didn’t fall on completely deaf ears although some of my friends would argue that on occasion.

Being nice has lots of parts to it. Being polite. Being kind. Being patient… understanding, thoughtful, respectful, courteous, forgiving… The list isn’t quite infinite, but it gets close.

The word “being” implies a state of existing. For me, it’s a passive word in that it doesn’t require action. Being just is.

And when it comes to life there are lots of opportunities to respond with niceness or not.

I was reminded of this during the week while flying cross-country with plane loads of others who just wanted to get from here to there with as little hassle as possible. Generally people were patient and courteous—nice, if you will. And, with the exception of the woman who couldn’t pry the cell phone from her face while speaking loudly, I found myself thinking “nice,” too.

But then I started watching the flight attendants as they helped mothers with small children to their seats, served drinks, read safety messages, passed out headphones and the myriad other things that airline people do in the course of their jobs. I offered the usual “thank you’s” for the coffee and the pillow. Mom and dad would have been pleased.

And, then it struck me.

Maybe there is something more than just being nice. Maybe we should elevate it to “doing nice” to others. Sure, the flight attendants were just doing their jobs and getting paid for it. So, “thanks,” should be enough, right?

I realized that the answer to that question might, in a small way, make a difference in the lives of others.

So, while sitting in 8B I decided to think about what they were doing for me: making the trip more safe and pleasant, calming passengers during some turbulence and bringing countless glasses of water to the person in 6C.

While leaving the plane and under the moniker of “doing nice,” I spoke to one of attendants and thanked her for making the flight pleasant and enjoyable. She paused, looked at me and said, “You just made my day.”

That made me wonder why it took so little to do that. And, if it took so little effort on my part, why wouldn’t I practice “doing nice” more often: think store clerk, the guy on the help line, the boss, the neighbor.

Being nice is good. But why not trump it with “doing nice.”

What’s your gift?

Time for a trivia challenge.

Think “1970s.” Down select to “music groups.”

Who comes to mind?

Chicago, the Jackson Five, Earth Wind and Fire?

Excellent choices.

For many, the brother/sister duo of Karen and Richard Carpenter will be on the list. The Carpenters hold the distinction of being one of the best-selling music acts in history with a distinctively soft music style that was a sharp contrast to the loud and wild rock of the decade.

Karen died in 1983 of an eating disorder. She was just 33.

Even the most ardent music critics characterize her voice and the Carpenter style as among the country’s finest. And so would her fans. But, despite wide-spread acclaim for her obvious gift and natural talent, it may be something that, on various levels, she never accepted.

In a recent interview*, brother Richard was asked if Karen understood what a good voice she had. His answer was that both he and Karen realized they could do just about anything musically and that, at some level, she knew about her gift. Yet he said, “I don’t really know.”

And then he added, “You know, being human, we do tend to take things for granted. So, I honestly can’t answer that one. I’ve tried.”

It’s always interesting to me how others see talents in us that we overlook or diminish. Wow, what a wonderful gift they’re giving us.

It’s safe to say that taking our talents for granted and not using them isn’t the best place to be. Neither is being haughtily arrogant. But, if you placed these two approaches on a continuum, being in the middle isn’t necessarily the place to be either.

Perhaps this is another call to be a contribution in the world, being less concerned what that is or how credit is bestowed. Not waiting for all the circumstances to be right and for all the stars to align, but just to be a contribution.

To become carpenters ourselves, building others up and encouraging them.

To sing our song and to help others sing theirs.

*     *     *

[Another post about being a contribution can be found here.]

*Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 25, 2009

Writing to students

It’s nearly impossible to catch a network newscast of late without hearing a story about people helping people.  Even CNN has added its touch with “CNN Heroes, everyday people changing the world” broadcast Thanksgiving evening. It’s a welcome change from the (unfortunately all-to-common) coverage of violence and hate that, if unchecked in our thinking, can jade and discourage.

Dan Stroup's story of writing birthday letters to his students was shown on the Today Show. You can watch the segment by clicking on the photo above.

A particular story caught my attention this morning—the account of a teacher who, for the past 30 years, has sent handwritten letters to his students on their birthdays. You can watch the video HERE.

The ritual takes place every night in the living room of Dan Stroup, teacher of Bible studies at Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis. Stroup, with an uncanny memory of his eighth-grade pupils, reflects on their time in class and poses questions about their lives today. Every note is closed with a Bible verse, written in red, at the bottom of the page.

He takes the job (he wouldn’t call it that) seriously and hopes that each letter brings encouragement and serves as a reminder that he remembers them.  “I don’t know who is going to need what and on what day, and I don’t know how God is going to use this,” he says.  “I want to make sure that I don’t drop the ball. Maybe this letter today is exactly what that person is going to need.”

Sometimes we don’t know the words that others need or how, if spoken, the words will fall on their ears. Maybe, if we listen, they’ll come to us. And if Stroup’s 30-year labor of love holds a lesson, it could be that his yearly act of 2500 individual letters will nurture each student. One by one.

“I will listen…”

The gift

iStock_000006416445XSmallI was scanning the online version of a local newspaper yesterday and I was amazed at comments from readers who, to put it mildly, seemed really angry (if not hostile) about the closing of a particular store in the city’s downtown area. It’s not what you think: They were angry because the store, in their opinion, catered to wealthy people and, as such, deserved to close. Yes, the logic is somewhat flawed.

It made me think about the opposite of anger and hostility. Could holding kind and loving thoughts make a difference in our experience and in that of others? We do know that people who constantly look at the emptiness of the glass (and embrace other limiting thoughts) have higher rates of depression and less health. And, conversely, we know that people who are positive, reinforcing and who express joy spread it to others. (Here’s a post about that.)

As I thought about the comments on the store’s closing, I was tempted to add my own to the ones already there. I would write about how such criticism of the store or others (regardless of their financial conditions) really didn’t better mankind much at all.

Instead, I went in a different direction. What if we thought about our lives as giving to others without regard to status or wealth? Those who are given lots share with those who don’t have. And those who have less share their gifts with others. Each of us has a gift to give.

What if you had a gift to give someone: a gift that you knew was beautiful and would bless others.

What if the person wasn’t ready to receive it? Would you withhold it because you fear it would be rejected and you along with it?

But what if the gift had to do with the Universe unfolding to someone and nothing to do with you?

And what if the gift–even if not acknowledged–would remain what it was, ready to come to life in the way a dormant flower or plant awakens in the spring? And what if it might, at some point in the future, be recognized for what it was?

And what if that gift was love?

Being the change

DENVER, COLORADO. It’s not your usual story about restaurants, food, or about prices and cash registers.

It’s about serving people, serving dignity, and serving hope.

You see, when you have lunch at SAME Café, you become part of a larger mission of helping others, So All May Eat.

picture-201SAME Café, sandwiched between local bars, thrift stores and tattoo parlors on East Colfax Avenue, is the loving work of Brad and Libby Birky. “We think that everybody deserves to eat well,” says Brad. They started the small restaurant by borrowing from their own retirement accounts when no bank would lend them money.

The menu changes daily and features soups, salads and pizza, using mostly organic ingredients prepared fresh by chef Brad.

Customers place their food order and receive a small envelope in which they put their donation for the food they eat. There is no cash register, credit card machine or change drawer. Some pay sparingly. Others are extremely generous. Others can’t pay. They are encouraged to donate an hour doing dishes, sweeping floors, wiping tables, doing some mopping.

Today, with the economy, SAME Café finds more people volunteering.

Despite that, affluent couples mix with those in need. Each enjoys the good food, the chance to be warm and to sit and chat.

One news reporter likened SAME to Gandhi’s admonition to “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Brad and Libby are inspiring builders of a better society. One thing we know is that there are many other Brads and Libbys out there. Their spirit of giving is part of who we are, too. The question is how we will pass it on to others.

You can visit www.soallmayeat.org to learn more or make a contribution and you can watch the NBC News report on SAME Cafe here.

 

Planning acts of kindness

“Random acts of kindness.”

The idea is that when we perform random acts of good, we bring happiness to the recipient. And, who could deny the good feeling we get when we help someone, offer an encouraging word, or pay a genuine compliment?

istock_000004633733xsmallLoosely defined, a random act of kindness is a selfless act to assist or cheer up an individual for no reason other than to make him or her smile or be happier. Behind this, in part, is the hope that the surprised individual will practice a random act, too–“paying it forward” as the book and movie tell us.

The theory is good.

But I’d like to propose that while practicing random acts of kindness is good, planning them for those we know is even better. After all, we know our circle of friends and their needs. What greater gift could we give than an act of kindness meant just for them?

Doing good is one of the ways we find our own happiness and satisfaction. Such actions are one of the noblest ways to grow increasingly happy.

Some people may believe that random kindness allows a certain anonymity and that they can be more secretive with their good deeds. Some may believe that if they get “credit” for an act, it’s less impactful. Some believe that you can never be truly altruistic because performing the act brings personal pleasure.

But, does any of that really matter?

All those arguments are about us. Isn’t it really about them and helping them be successful? And, helping others be successful can take many forms. Kindness is one of them.

Doing good for others does not deplete our stock of it and leave us half full. Rather, it fills us up with even more. Funny how that works.

So, perform acts of kindness randomly, if you like. It’s good. But planned can be even better.

Question: Who do you know, right now, who could benefit from one planned act of kindness on your part? How about just an encouraging word? A thank you? Maybe just a call. Go ahead. Pick up the phone.

Six points is just about everything

Patrick is your usual high school senior. He studies. He plays basketball. He’s a favored son of parents, Pat and Perry.

And he has Downs syndrome.

patrick11That small fact doesn’t stop Patrick from running drills with the team throughout the year or playing with them during summer practices. And even though he’s never played in a real game, when you hear his teammates talk, you can feel the respect they have for Patrick, his toughness and his dedication to the team.

But, senior night, as it’s known, would put Patrick in a special place made possible by his friend and team standout, Sam Thompson. It was Sam who gave up his starting position so that Patrick could play in his only actual game, the last his high school would play that year.

“If I can help him have a special experience tonight, I’ll do whatever it takes,” Sam said, unconcerned that he was giving up his final starting role on the team.

And even though the center of attention that night would be Patrick, the decision of his coach and the support of his fellow players would enable this young man’s dream to become real.

The game began. Patrick missed his first shot, but a minute or so later made a clean shot from 20 feet out. Swish. Three points.

Near the end of the fourth quarter, fans started chanting Patrick’s name, demanding that he get another chance to play. With just a few minutes left in the game, Patrick took his place on the court. And just as the buzzer sounded, Patrick landed another three pointer. Swish.

Final score: Greely High School: 61 — Gray New Glouster: 43.

Players surrounded the new star, lifted him in the air and carried him off the court as the school’s new hero. But to 18-year-old Patrick, the real heroes were likely his team members who gave up just a little to give him so much.

The way it’s supposed to be

The water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 and the rescue of all 155 aboard is truly a tremendous feat, if not-as some say-a miracle. The quick thinking of the pilot and co-pilot, the decisive actions of flight attendants, the passengers’ relative calm in the midst of chaos, and the flawless, timely rescues by passing boats and helicopters made for a tragedy that could have been, but wasn’t.

_45384654_-18Who among us didn’t feel a sense of awe as we took in television or radio accounts of The Miracle on the Hudson, as it’s been dubbed?

But, what we should also recognize is that all that surrounded The Miracle was “the way it’s meant to happen.” Well, except for the birds in the engines, that is.

Training.

Teamwork.

Quick thinking.

Decisiveness.

Bravery.

The system worked! Think about that. That’s the way it is supposed to be.

Who did not go home that day thinking, “I’m honored to have done my part. I was in the right place at the right time.”

It’s reasonable to conclude that passengers would heap mounds of praise on the crew and that both passengers and crew would heap mounds of praise on the rescuers. Each would probably say, “I was just doing my job.”

In fact, one of the rescuers, a scuba diver, described the training that equipped him to work in freezing Hudson River water that is totally black just inches beneath the surface. When submerged, they couldn’t see anything, so they worked by feel.

When a reporter asked if he felt fear when he jumped from the hovering helicopter, he paused, then said, “No, there wasn’t time for that. There were just people to be rescued from the freezing water.”

There are many lessons from this, but one stood out to me today while at the drive through window of a local fast food restaurant, the one with yellow arches outside. Oftentimes, such places don’t attract the most enthusiastic workers. For many, it’s just a job and a way to pay the bills which often gets played out as disinterest and rudeness.

I couldn’t see the woman who took my order, but her voice came clearly and professionally through the speaker. After carefully repeating my order and giving me the total, she concluded with a confident, “Thank you for your order, sir. Please pull forward at your convenience.”

I handed her the money when I reached the window. She was a 50s-something African American woman with graying hair pulled tightly away from her face. I inquired if she was the person who took my order. “Yes,” she said, “why do
you ask?”

I looked her in the eyes and said, “Because I have never been treated so professionally here. You have lots to teach others about customer service.”

As I said it, I thought about the people whose actions lead to the safe outcome of Flight 1549. Someone was there to thank them–even though they were just “doing their jobs” just like this woman.

Her eyes sparkled. The smile on her face was real. “You just made my day,” she said.

As I pulled away I couldn’t help but think, “That, too, is the way it’s supposed to be.”

This is just too cool!

Kevin Bacon is an actor, musician and creator of the popular Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon concept that says each of us is connected to any other person in the world through six or fewer relationships—because, as he says, “It’s a small world.”

picture-4And there’s a wonderful new twist that caught the attention of many, many people over the holidays: www.SixDegrees.org. Bacon started the site in January 2007 with the nonprofit Network for Good in which peeps like you and me can donate money to this organization on behalf of a friend. The trick is that your friend receives a “Good Card” via e- or snail-mail that he or she can, in turn, donate to the non-profit organization of choice. Is that cool or what?

picture-5As of the last look, more than $2.5 million in Good Cards have been issued.

Here’s an example of what one person did with a Good Card:

“I always like the part of our classes in which we ask people what they’d do if they could have their perfect job. You know, I always talk about helping orphaned children in Africa whose parents have died from the AIDS epidemic there.

“So when I got my Good Card in my email, I immediately knew who I wanted to receive the $50: my adopted daughter in Zambia! The website let me go to World Vision International, donate the money, and designate it to her! It felt sooooo good to give the extra money to her and her family.

“Together we are making a difference in a young girl’s life, an orphan of the AIDS epidemic. Not only her…we are also helping her grandmother and two siblings.

“Thank you, my friend!

“Praying that your new year is the best yet!”

What a wonderful example of taking our dream job and making it real today. Here’s a post that’s related to this one.

How can I help you?

Ever wonder why some people are just so darned helpful? I was talking to a colleague yesterday and I learned something that helped me understand the question.

istock_000005066727xsmallKris (name changed to protect the innocent/guilty) is an organized, unassuming woman who works in a different department and who will do just about whatever it takes to meet your needs. At least that’s been my experience. She’s got the tough exterior of a former New York City gal and the presence of mind to keep her cool when things heat up.

I had called to ask a few technical questions on some IT matters. The conversation ended along the lines of, “You know, I always appreciate your help, Kris, and the way you think problems through.”

Then she said, “Well, you and your team are always such nice customers and so appreciative. I just love working with you.” Hmmm. I’d never thought that we were nice customers—probably because I hadn’t thought about it one way or another.

It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon, of course, to conclude that “nice customers” get better treatment than those who aren’t. That’s how all the members of our team try to be—not consciously, I’m sure; it’s just the way they are. The question, then, might be: Does Kris give us better treatment because we are nice folks?

Knowing Kris, I’d say, “No, she’s just that way.”

But it does raise a good point: If we try to be good customers by being courteous and appreciative, we help the people who are trying to help us. It’s a sort of “helping others be successful” approach that has some great, positive consequences.

The same holds true in the normal work setting, too. Working with people who are serious about their work, dedicated and thoughtful but who go about their work in a pleasant, fun-loving manner are always easier to be around than those who are down, dour and in the dumps.

That goes to the “happiness rubbing off” flavor in the previous blog.

Your song for world peace

Sitting quietly and almost hidden in composer and conductor John Williams’ immense body of orchestral work is a gentle, but insistent, almost five minute composition called “Song for World Peace.” It’s part of his “American Journey” album.

The idea that earth’s seven billion inhabitants could live together without strife is a concept almost too large to comprehend.

But, Williams’ musical development of “Song for World Peace” is a metaphor, of sorts, of how peace might come to our planet. French horns introduce a simple theme that is echoed by flutes, later by clarinets, then strings and the entire orchestra. But, slowly, the theme dies out and falters.

Williams then begins a new, but complementary, theme. Again, it begins somewhat tentatively, but it grows much richer and more confident, bringing an affirmation that peace may, in fact, be possible.

World peace would imply that individuals are at peace, too, meaning that the tiny moments of impatience and the bigger moments of personal anger would not exist either. The sometimes strong desire to honk at the slow driver and harsh words would yield to love and compassion. It is a tall order.


Which raises the question: Would I be ready for world peace if it should break out? And, even more important, how am I waging peace in my life? What are my individual peace efforts?

Philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis provides her own practical example. “I want to use my 100th birthday to help young people launch some immediate initiatives,” she said, “—things that they can do during the summer of 2007—that will bring new thinking to the prospects of peace in the world” You can learn about her work here. It was such a successful effort that 100 Projects for Peace continues in 2008.

“My many years have taught me that there will always be conflict. It’s part of human nature,” Davis wrote. “But I’ll remind you that love, kindness, and support are also part of human nature. My challenge to you is to bring about a mindset of preparing for peace, instead of preparing for war.”

How do you prepare for peace?

When as good as it gets isn’t good enough

Actor Jack Nicholson is often cast as quirky movie characters and his take on Melvin Udall in the 1997 film “As Good As It Gets” is no exception. Melvin is the supremely cranky, obsessive-compulsive writer who finds his life totally uprooted when his gay neighbor/artist is hospitalized and he’s left to canine-sit the man’s small dog. To make matters worse, the only coffee shop waitress who can tolerate him must leave work to care for her sick son, making it impossible for Melvin to eat breakfast. At some point, we are left to conclude that this may be as good as it gets for him.

While Melvin might dream of a major, sweeping change transforming his peculiar life, it’s hard to imagine that happening.

Truth is, for Melvin—and you and me—life is more frequently a series of incremental changes, not major transformations. And that has its plusses and minuses.

On the up side, small changes are easier to handle and keep things on an even keel. On the down side, by only making small changes in our lives we may become complacent and accept the status quo—a sort of “as good as it gets mindset” that keeps us from taking leaps of faith.

Here’s a question for you: If you could do anything in the world, without restrictions of any kind such as income or education or experience, what would it be? No limitations at all. What would it be? It’s a sort of, “If I could relive my entire life—wipe the slate clean, if you will—this is who I really want to be and what I really want to do” question.

Maybe you want to be an author, or design golf courses, or help kids in Africa stricken with HIV-AIDS. Or perhaps your other calling is to be a minister, to own your own coffee shop, or to become a famous chef.

Here’s a second question: What’s the essence of your first answer? What’s behind it? What would that mean to you?

For example, if your goal is to move to Africa and provide help to children suffering from AIDS, what’s behind that? Perhaps that would mean educating parents, to relieve suffering and reduce the number of HIV cases each year. In other words, you want to make a small difference in the lives of people who are largely forgotten in the mainstream.

Or, if you want to write a book, what would it be about? How would that make a difference to others? Why is that important?

Now, for most of us, pulling up our job-stakes and embracing a life changing transformation is not practical or doable. Lots of things stand in the way. But if your dream is big and would really energize you, is there a way to give yourself—and the world—its gift?

One last question: What can you do today to bring even a small part of your ultimate dream into your life? Not the whole thing, but a part.

If becoming a chef is your big dream, what about taking a cooking class? Or preparing a special meal for your family? Or volunteering at a local food kitchen?

If you want to help with AIDS in Africa, is there a way to contribute money to those who are doing such work today?

Or, if you really want to write a book, is there a way you can share your writing skills in a slightly different way? For example, there are literally hundreds of online, part time writing jobs on the internet. Many of them pay quite well.

The case can be made that we should always pursue our dreams and maximize the way we use our talents. No question about that. But a single step toward that dream is better than no step at all.

One last thought…it’s amazing that when we share our talents with others, everyone benefits.

Tell us how you are pursuing your dreams in the comments section.

Living unselfishly

Burris Hall, Virginia Tech

Burris Hall, Virginia Tech

FEBRUARY 2008. It was Saturday morning on the campus of Virginia Tech, an overcast 35 degrees with a chilling wind blowing across the drill field toward Burris Hall. Less than a year earlier, the field was the scene of a tribute by thousands of Hokie students, faculty and administrators as they remembered their 32 friends who, a few days earlier, had been killed by a gunman, one of their own, in the most tragic college shooting ever.

But this Saturday the drill field was empty. A colleague and I parked our Ford Explorer nearby, several blocks from the place where we’d soon be speaking to engineering students but only a few feet from the semi-circular memorial honoring VT’s slain students and faculty.

As we walked down the gently sloping path to the memorial, I couldn’t help but reflect on how honorably the 32 Hokie Stones, as they’re called, marked the lives of such diverse people. And, if there’s a blessing in the tragedy, it may be that Hokie students and alums are more steadfast in their love for their school and what it stands for—a place to “invent the future” as they call it.

Sadly, only two weeks earlier, another tragic college shooting took place when a gunman killed five Huskie students on the campus of Northern Illinois University. Trying to make sense of the shootings at Virginia Tech and NIU is difficult, if not impossible. A friend of mine, writing in a blog a few days ago, called it “an extreme form of selfishness.” An apt description, that’s for sure.

But as my colleague and I stood at the memorial, numbed by the moment and the cold wind, I told her of my friend’s description of selfishness. She paused for a moment and said, “You know, it’s also an extreme form of loneliness. The killers in these cases were all alone with no friends to listen or talk to. Or at least that’s what they thought.”

It made me wonder if selfishness, when taken to an extreme, is really an inability to see how we fit together in a sort of inter-dependent universe, one in which no one stands alone? Could it be that selfishness is nothing more than a trick that obscures how we are really all part of a great big “whole?”

I realized that the healing of selfishness occurs when we “operationalize love” by both knowing that God is Love and by living a life of loving one another through inclusion and compassion. Such living would not only help change loneliness into inclusiveness but selfishness into concern for others.

Our talk later that afternoon to 25 engineering students would be about preparing themselves for the world of work by choosing to make a difference in the world. We used an idea from the movie “Pay It Forward” in which a social studies teacher challenges his students to come up with an idea to change the world. One of them decides he will do something good for three other people. They cannot return the favor to him, but must “pay it forward” to three others who, in turn, must pay it forward to three more. (If you do the math, the number of people who are touched grows very quickly!)

As we talked about this idea with the engineering students they laughed about the fact that the size of the act wasn’t important, it was the act itself. One person told me later, “Good doesn’t come in sizes—good just is.”

The idea of paying it forward can make a huge difference in the lives of people who are lonely and hurting. Even the act of selflessly listening to others can break the spell of loneliness. Such acts of love help clear the dark of loneliness with the light of inclusion; they extinguish the trick of selfishness with the truth of unity and oneness.

We may never know the results of paying good forward as it’s almost impossible to know if doing so prevents bad acts—however minor or extreme—from happening. That’s the wonder of it. We may never know how we’ve made a difference. We just need to remember that we have.