By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
I have an old and dear friend who will turn 86 before the end of this month who from time to time wonders if and how his life has made a difference.
He never married or had children, so he has no wife or children around to assure him – in either word or deed – that his life has mattered.
He was a professor of mine and an incredible presence on our college campus back in the tumultuous 60s, so I can say without reservation that his life has made a huge and wonderful difference in my own.
But he still wonders.
Blessed with the feedback of a loving spouse of 50-plus years, five adult children, their spouses and 16 grandchildren, I confess that I wonder much less than my friend does. For better or worse, I am usually acutely aware of my impact on their lives, at least at the moment. And sometimes they point to longer-term effects they think I have had on their development.
Yet, I have shared with my friend an incident from my own life that has made me resolutely humble about measuring my own life’s impact on anyone else ever.
Many years after I had left a place of employment in another state where I had been engaged for a few years, an envelope arrived from that village with a personal note inside. At the time I was certain that I knew everyone who worked for my employer, without regard for what department they might have been in or what work they might have been doing.
The author explained that the purpose of her note was to thank me for the help I had given her in learning how to be a photographer. She said she had since been blessed to travel pretty much around the world and to take photographs that she now cherished to refresh her memories of her adventures.
She was writing, she explained, because she realized how much my time and attention decades ago had contributed to her ability to take those special photos, and she just wanted to acknowledge her debt and her gratitude.
I was stunned – and not just at her heartfelt expression of gratitude after so many years. I was stunned because I had no memory of any person by her name, much less having helped her learn photography.
Whatever impact I had on her life, I was completely unaware of it until she wrote to me across so many decades of ignorance.
The lesson for me has been that in this life we can never know in any comprehensive sense how we have affected and perhaps even helped shape the lives of others. That is, quite simply, above our pay grade.
What we are left with are countless opportunities to help, to serve, to contribute to the development and betterment of others – some intimates, others strangers. We can step up ... or we can step by. But we cannot keep any kind of accurate score because we are only dimly aware of the opportunities that have occurred, much less our own responses to them.
In the Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus, we talk about how people lead even when they aren’t aware of the impacts they are having. I’ve shared with you one such positive instance in my life. No doubt there are many more negative ones, some of which I am aware and some that people, thankfully, have not bothered to share with me. That’s why I ask for God’s forgiveness and mercy at least once a day.
WATCH A MOVING 6-MINUTE VIDEO ABOUT HOW OUR EVERYDAY LEADERSHIP SHAPES OTHERS’ LIVES