June 2009


Among the wonderful places where I have lived, worked and studied over my life span, Washington and New York are truly notable. Yes, they are power centers. While the currency in New York is tied directly to financial power, the currency in Washington is tied to the exercise of raw political power. This is an overstatement but it seems to have grounding in some fact.

One of the unintended consequences of being around big cities, big ideas, big people, new strategies, change, etc., is that the small and ostensibly inconsequential seems quite trivial and unimportant by comparison...not big enough to truly matter. It doesn't seem significant enough to help one poor person or one homeless person or one friend out of work. In Washington, we seek to help THE poor, THE homeless, and address THE unemployment problem. A consequence of such “big” thinking can be corrosive to our souls, a disregard for the small yet immensely important acts of charity. My friend and mentor, John Whitehead, the former head of Goldman, Sachs one day responded to a question of mine. "So John, you are a man of many parts. You see the big picture, so many of our problems can feel unsolvable and resistant to change. So, how do you stay hopeful?" John responded in an instant. "Each day I try to do something small and personal for someone that makes a difference." Great counsel. Do little things for others. It will definitely change us and perhaps another.  This theme is developed by Malcolm Gladwell in his wonderful book, Tipping Point—small acts are individually transformational.

Several years back, I worked on a PBS documentary with friend and Harvard psychiatrist, Armand Nicholi. In a New York breakfast meeting, a friend asked Armand a probing question: "Armand, if you were with a severely depressed person and had only one thing that you could advise him or her to do to change her/her severe circumstance, what would it be?" Armand's reply? Urge the person to reach out and help someone in greater need than her or himself. 

Mother Teresa is famous for never getting overwhelmed with the poverty and hopelessness among the masses of street poor in Calcutta. Our small gestures and care matter despite what appears of small consequence in the face of daunting intractable challenges.

So what am I suggesting?  Realize that deep satisfaction comes from doing not just large projects, but small things for others. I am more and more convinced that as we get involved and become givers, WE are the real beneficiaries. For example, I have urged countless friends to go to the ancient country Ethiopia, likely the poorest nation on earth. Yet I urge them to go not to help Ethiopians primarily, but rather to help themselves. Such an upside down approach brings a deep humility to our lives and changes us by receiving from those without.

After teaching at Ivy League institutions, author Henri Nouwen moved into the Larch Community in Toronto, a small residential community for severely mentally disabled people. The contrast between the two worlds for Nouwen was profound.  Nouwen joined this community for the sake of his own growth. In one of his books, he unpacks a new understanding of where real influence and power reside, not in those cities and institutions he previously upheld as the bastions of power and influence. He started noticing in little things, very profound lessons, as well as traction for broader change.

Ponder the following words by Nouwen. They are truly profound. And, hey, do something small and cool for someone today!  It might not help them at all, but it will change you!



More and more the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence.  Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets.  It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress.  But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn't be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes and hugs that you do not simply like them, but you truly love them.


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