Salty Snippet, August 2021
As news of problems all over the world becomes as available to us as our daily bread, perhaps others feel like me that we wish we could augment our influence to “make a better world,” to take away some of the endless unnecessary suffering, improve structures, eliminate greed, leave the world a better place when we walk on. From the time I was an idealistic teenager, this is what I wanted to do.
And yet, Life has its own weird ways. As I stepped forward on my path, I found myself doing things similar to what my mother had done – raising a small family, helping neighbors and relatives as needed, I occasionally held jobs that influenced a few for the better in a larger community. I’m tempted to feel disappointed in my small accomplishments against a large desire.
By chance I’ve discovered the life of a Civil War hero named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and find him inspiring. Joshua Chamberlain seemed ordinary but was raised with a fine combination of caring for others, thoughtfulness, and self-discipline in the service of whatever seemed his highest duty. When war called him to serve in the cause(s) of concern in the Civil War, he left his job as college professor and quickly became a leader of a small group of soldiers from his native Maine. Under his leadership of courage, spontaneity, and complete service of their lives, altogether they did extraordinary feats which saved the day at Gettysburg and later left the South with honor and respect in the final surrender at Appomattox. Actually, the whole picture of what ALL soldiers were giving in this extraordinary and costly war is an inspiration to me. Chamberlain received the Medal of Honor; some of his men just died a terrible death. The image I see is of duty wherever it leads one, discipline, courage to do as asked to the utmost.
I also think of the amazing life of Nelson Mandela. Twenty-seven (27) of the best years of his life were spent in a small prison, hidden away from the world, suffering much with a few friends. Mr. Mandela stepped up to the plate and lived those years with the best strengths he could find inside himself. When this test was finished, he stepped out strong, with enough self-discipline and dedication to duty to lead an entire country. To CHANGE an entire country’s direction to the better.
A third image guides me through my life– my grandfather. He served his local small town in rural western Michigan running the local grocery store, founding a bank, serving on the School Board and the County Welfare Board, teaching adult Sunday school. The local Republicans (including Gerald Ford) asked him to run for the state Senate during the Great Depression because they wanted someone who would stand up for education. He agreed, ran, and became a State Senator. I was told that as chair of the Senate Education Committee he saved both Eastern Michigan University and Western Michigan University from being shut down by the Governor because of the depression. At that time Senators were paid $2 a day and only when in session, so he continued to work in the family store when at home; but his brother who shared the store had begun drinking. His brother said he would stop drinking if Grandpa left the Senate, and so – Grandpa did this (after 10 years as Senator). There was no complaint as he returned to being a small-town grocery store owner. There are many other stories I could tell you of seeing his humility and gladness to serve and help in any way that opened. My mother told me that he took (free) groceries every week for many years to an old Black man who lived alone somewhere and no one knew he did this but my mother. All his life, Grandpa kept himself in service to something larger than himself.
Lastly, I am always awed at the life of Dag Hammarskjold, probably the greatest Secretary General the United Nations has had. Mr. Hammarskjöld suffered a great deal of loneliness in the diplomatic service to which he felt called. But in his diary, Markings, he expressed his commitment uniquely:
I don’t know Who – or what – put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal. (Whitsunday, 1961)
I hold onto the images of these people as I turn back to my own “duties.” I have an immediate family to nurture forward in their lives. There are various people who look to me for support, encouragement, some people suffering or lacking resources. There are organizations I can participate in to help my local community. Service to a few individuals, a small area, does not seem like it will change the course of history, but this is what My Life assigns me to do. If I were or will be called to do more, I will hope like Mr. Mandela and Grandpa and Joshua Chamberlain and Dag Hammarskjold to step forward and be as big as asked. Or else to trust that what I do that appears small is still an important part of a larger movement of the world toward better and kinder and healthier for all.
In my Quaker meetinghouse I love our very old carpeting: The pattern is of beautiful octagons of a variety of designs, all touching each other, building a whole. As I scan it all before me in the silence of worship, I see how we are each individual but are all a part of Something Larger that’s going on. All we are required to do is to step up to whatever our life brings to us; this is our part in making the whole beautiful.
Post Script: Another life story comes to my mind that inspires me; she is the polar opposite of these above great people – Helen Keller. You know who I mean, right? Every American knows her. In the depths of our souls we carry her image of just Being what we are born to be, and sharing what we can. Living her life heroically, she has affirmed the least among us.