Several years ago the US Army had a commercial containing a tag line that I found quite inspiring. Following a montage of contemporary military photos, the narrator voice-over proclaims “One day they may be asked what they did to make a difference in this world; they can respond: I became a Soldier.”
When I saw this for the first time I was overcome with an immense sense of pride. In the matter of a few seconds my entire 31 year career in uniform passed by me as a vindication of good deeds done; of lives touched; of actions that delivered a positive result. The stirring phrase validated for me a belief I long time thought to be true: In both war and peace, I did my part to improve the world.
Indian civil rights leader, Mahatma Gandhi noted “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Not surprisingly, the person viewed by many as the “American Gandhi”, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., made a similar and equally persuasive proclamation: “The most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others.” These challenges were directed at the masses writ large and not to selected demographic groups; each, an ardent invocation compelling common people to seize the moment and take action.
Though I answered the call to action by joining the Army – however, as a young boy I did briefly toy with idea of being a priest (how many of you just exclaimed “No way!”) – I have met, served with and read about millions of ordinary people who touch the lives of others in positive ways on a routine basis. The large majority help those around them with silent and unassuming diligence and fierce determination.
While teachers, police officers, doctors, nurses, health care workers and similar professionals are the most recognizable doers of good deeds, it is the average person – those that Gandhi and Reverend King spoke to with the eloquent pleas – that are the most pervasive “Good Samaritans.”
Looking within the ranks of those who make the world a better place is like peering into a kaleidoscope. You will see young and old, adult and child, rich and poor, straight and gay; people of every shade and hue; folks of every religious preference, believers and non-believers alike; you will find liberals and conservatives, Democrats, Republicans and Independents. These are just everyday people sharing one common purpose and perhaps a mutual understanding of 19th Century orator, Robert Ingersoll’s declaration “We rise by lifting others.”
While tragedies usually provide the canvas on which the exploits of these ordinary humanitarians can be most effectively painted, the good work is being done 24/7. Wherever a need exists you will find these unsung heroes. There is the Pennsylvania great-grandmother who unselfishly gives of her time at a local retirement community, devotedly filling a familial void for many who sadly, need it. She embodies the sentiment of Holocaust victim, Anne Frank, who wrote, ”You can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness.”
There is the university undergrad who faithfully found the time in an arduous academic schedule to tirelessly work to improve the education opportunities, and ultimately lives, of immigrant adolescents in rural Alabama. The late Muhammad Ali, who claimed “”Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth” would have likely approved of her efforts.
There is the Serbian immigrant who somehow finds the time in a cruelly demanding work schedule to teach ESL classes to young children within her DC community. She wants to make a difference in the world and realizes that starts at home; her American home. Perhaps an embodiment of Albert Einstein’s edict “Only a life lived in the service of others is worth living.”
Finally, there is the wife and mother in Georgia who always has time for those in need. Whether befriending strangers she arbitrarily meets, helping a neighbor with a cruel and incurable disease, volunteering to meet the needs of the families of deployed soldiers or just wanting to care for babies who need care, she is always ready. She recently told me a comment the late film legend Audrey Hepburn once made: “As you grow older you will discover you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.” How fitting.
All of these very real and very ordinary but disparate people are bound by one common thread permeating the fiber of their bodies. The understanding that the 19th Century English author Charles Dickens was spot on when he acknowledged “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another.”
As for me, the old soldier, I head into my waning days confident that despite three wars and seven years deployed to combat zones, the large portion of my contribution to the world’s endstate were life enhancing, not ending. The pictures I include in this blog best describe what I mean. In that regard, I fully embrace American author, Andrew Bigelow Pine, who wrote “What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
I mentioned in a previous blog that Ralph Waldo Emerson is my favorite poet. As such, I leave you with I think is his most beautiful prose: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” My request of you, constant reader, be honorable, be compassionate and above all, make a difference in the world!