NOTE: This post was originally published on my previous blog, The Healing Project.
“We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” – Mother Teresa
I have always wanted to make a difference in the world. Over the years, my vision for how I would do this has shifted, but I have maintained my desire to help others.
Lately, I have questioned how much of a contribution I’ve been making and have increasingly felt that what I do is not good enough. A recent experience vividly illustrated the powerful truth in Mother Teresa’s simple quote. The focus of this week’s post is on that experience, what it taught me, and how I will proceed in life based upon what I learned.
An Ordinary Evening – Or Not…
One evening two weeks ago, my husband and I went to the gym to work out. It was like any other evening, or at least that’s how it started out. As we were walking from the parking lot into the gym, we heard a noise… Upon repetition, it became clear to us that the sound was a cat’s meow. Soon, a small white cat with tabby markings was at our feet, meowing loudly and nudging us. Her friendly demeanor made it clear that she wasn’t a feral cat, but her thin appearance was characteristic of a stray and most likely abandoned feline. The meows were likely a cry for help, a plea for food by a cat that probably hadn’t had a good meal in a long time.
The Bystander Effect
While we stood next to the meowing cat, a number of people walked by us and appeared to be indifferent to what was happening. Like everyone seems to be these days, they were probably busy and moving on to the next item on their lengthy to-do lists. There is something known as the “bystander effect,” a phenomenon that explains why most people don’t rush to help those in need. When there are many others in the vicinity, it is assumed that someone else will help.
I had read about this problem in “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell just a few weeks ago, in fact. Gladwell illustrated his point by recounting the story of the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City. While Ms. Genovese was stabbed to death on the street, 38 witnesses watched from nearby buildings and NONE of them called the police!
Just Another Bystander?
I realize that ignoring a stray cat is not the same as idly standing by while a woman is murdered. However, since our gym is located at the intersection of two busy streets in a high-traffic commercial area, the chance of this small cat surviving under those conditions was not very good. I decided not to assume that someone else would help the cat. I chose not to walk away because it was inconvenient for me to help at that time. I decided that I would be the one to rescue the sweet little kitty from her scary plight. In that moment, I knew that I could do a small thing with great love!
A Happy Ending
My husband and I had help in saving the little kitty we nicknamed “Sparky.” We were able to lure her into a carrier with canned food and a local rescue group took her in and got her spayed and vaccinated.
We were pleased to learn a few days ago that Sparky was adopted immediately following her five day hold at the shelter. She now has a new home and a new chance at a happy life. The fact that we were willing to step in and help saved Sparky’s life, and it didn’t take much time or effort, either.
I Make a Difference
The “Sparky experience” taught me that although I had been feeling small and insignificant in the world, I do matter and I can make a difference. While it’s true that I have not made myself a household name or achieved a seven (or even six) figure income, I mattered to Sparky and I made a powerful and significant difference in her life. She didn’t care that I am not successful according to our society’s definition of the concept. I allowed myself to be guided by my heart and help a small creature that really needed my help.
Moving Forward – More Small Things…
I’ve decided to commit to doing more small things with great love, both for those I know and those whom I’ve never met. Since I feel a strong connection to animals, I have submitted an application to volunteer with the rescue group that helped us to rescue Sparky. I also plan to pursue other volunteer opportunities for valuable causes that strike my passion and tug at my heartstrings. I have the time and freedom to volunteer, and will find organizations which have a need for the types of services I can provide.
I will also strive to be more open and giving with the people in my life. I have a tendency to be withdrawn and reserved and I know that leads me to feel more isolated and alone. I plan to review my list of contacts to see who I might want to reconnect with in the coming weeks and months. I also plan to put myself “out there” more often so I can make new personal and professional connections. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the old saying goes…
The Ripple Effect
I am often very hard on myself and make blanket judgments about my purpose and place in this world. In truth, I have no idea how much I touch the lives of others in small but meaningful ways. I am reminded of the movie “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing,” a film which explores how the lives of thirteen people intersect in the face of life’s cold unpredictability. One of the characters had been standing on a street corner about to walk out into oncoming traffic to commit suicide. As he stood there, he saw a woman (one of the other characters but a stranger to him) smile at him from across the street. This simple act of kindness and generosity convinced the man that there was still hope for him and a reason to live. The smiling women never knew that she saved someone’s life that day…
We never know how much we impact others. We can make a difference in large and dramatic ways, in smaller yet deliberate ways, and in random and unintentional ways. The important thing to remember is that we can and do contribute to the lives of others. If we choose to do so, we can make a concerted effort to positively influence others, but even those who primarily pursue self-serving ends still have a ripple effect on the world around them. We all matter and we are all valuable to our loved ones, our communities, and the society at large.
Kindness and Contribution
Remember, we don’t need to commit grand gestures in order to make a difference. We make a difference by being our authentic selves and acting from our hearts.
I close with a few quotes on the topics of kindness and contribution.
- “Every smile is a direct achievement.” – Unknown
- “Isn’t it amazing how often we can touch someone’s life, and enrich our own, by a very simple act? Kindness, pass it on…” – Betty, WA Community Organizer
- “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” – Mother Teresa
- “Be kind. It is hardly ever the wrong thing to do.” – Unknown