How To Be True To You

How To Be True To You

――Give wisely and carry a big stick

I knew a man, a very tall and spare and gentle man, for several years before I found out that he visited prisoners in our county jail, week in and week out for decades. He would write letters for them, carry messages, fetch clothing or books. But mainly he just offered himself. He didn’t preach to them, didn’t pick and choose between the likable and the nasty, didn’t look for any return on his kindness. All that mattered was that they were in trouble.

Why did he spend time with out-casts when he could have been golfing or watching TV? “I go in case everyone else has given up on them,” he told me once. “I never give up.”

Never giving up is a trait we honor in athletes, in soldiers, in survivors of disaster, in patients recovering from severe injuries. If you struggle bravely against overwhelming odds, you’re liable to end up on the evening news. But in less flashy, less news-worthy FOR Ms, fidelity to a mission or a person or an occupation shows up in countless lives all around us.

It shows up in parents who will not quit loving their daughter even after she dyes her hair purple and tattoos her belly and runs off with a rock band. It shows up in couples who choose to mend their marriages instead of filing for divorce. It shows up in volunteers at the hospital or library or women’s shelter or soup kitchen. It shows up in unsung people everywhere who do their jobs well, not because the supervisor is watching or because they are paid gobs of money but because they know their work matters.

When my son Jesse was in sixth grade, his teacher was diagnosed with breast cancer. She told the children about the disease, about the surgery and therapy, and about her hopes for recovery. Jesse came home deeply impressed that she had trusted them with her news. She could have stayed home for the rest of the year. On mastectomy healed, she began going in to school one afternoon a week, then two, then a full day, then two days and three.

When a parent worried aloud that she might be risking her health for the sake of the children, the teacher scoffed, “Oh, heavens, no! They’re my best medicine.” Besides, these children would only be in sixth grade once, she said, and she meant to help them all she could while she had the chance.

The therapy must have worked, because ten years later she’s going strong. When I see her around town, she always asks about Jesse. Is he still so funny, so bright, so excited about learning? Yes, he is, I tell her, and she beams.

A cause needn’t be grand, it needn’t impress a crowd to be worthy of our commitment. I have a friend who built houses Monday through Friday for people who could pay him and then built other houses for free on Saturday with Habitat for Humanity. A neighbor makes herself available to international students and their families, unbridling for them the puzzles of living in this new place. Other neighbors coach soccer teams, visit the sick, give rides to the housebound, tutor dropouts, teach adults to read.

I could multiply these examples a hundredfold without ever leaving my county. Most likely you could do the same. Any community worth living in must have a web of people faithful to good work and to one another, or that community would fall apart.

To say that fidelity is common is not to say it’s easy, painless or free. It costs energy and time, maybe a lifetime.

And every firm yes we say requires many a firm no. One Sunday I was talking the man who visited prisoners in jail, when a young woman approached to ask if he would join the board of a new peace group she was organizing. In a rush of words she told him why the cause was crucial, why the cause was crucial, why the time was ripe, why she absolutely needed his leadership. Knowing this man’s sympathies, I figured the would agree to serve. But after listening to her plea, he gazed at her soberly for a moment, then said, “That certainly is a vital concern, worthy of all your passion. But it is not my concern.”

The challenge for all of us is to find those few causes that are peculiarly our own–those to which we are clearly called and then to embrace them with all our heart. By remaining faithful to a calling, we can create the conditions for finding a purpose and a pattern in our days.

If you imagine trying to solve all the world’s problems at once, though, you’re likely to quit before you finish rolling up your sleeves. But if you stake out your own workable territory, if you settle on a manageable number of causes, then you might accomplish a great deal, all the while trusting that others elsewhere are working faithfully in their own places.
















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