I am but one person…. What can I do? The answer is always the same: I can do something. It doesn't have to be much. It only needs to be done with love and it becomes great, no matter how small it may seem to the giver of the gift. Ours is not to question the size or value of our individual contributions. Our task in life is simply to give from the essence of who we are. Each gift is unique and valuable, and each adds a necessary piece to the whole.
The following individuals shared that which they had to give, and each in his or her own way made the world a little better. There was nothing outwardly special about these people. But within, their candles burned brightly, and they helped to light the world for the rest of us, take, for example, a gentle woman named Rachel Carson.
"The thing that's so remarkable about her is that she was ordinary," said Dorothy Seif, 80, who befriended Carson when the two discovered a mutual interest in biology.
"I remember we were working late one night in the laboratory, and she stopped and looked through the darkened window. She said, 'I've always wanted to write, but I haven't much imagination. Biology has given me something to write about. I'd like someday to make the animals and plants and woods as interesting to others are they are to me.'''¹
What if Rachel Carson had asked, "What can I do?" and had concluded, "Nothing." Her book, Silent Spring, would never have been written, a book that, "Almost overnight, … provoked a nationwide outcry against DDT and other man-made pesticides and herbicides."¹ Rachel Carson heightened society's awareness of the dangers of indiscriminate use of chemicals in the environment.
Then there is Richard St. Barbe Baker, known to his friends as St. Barbe, who dedicated his life to regreening the Earth by inspiring people to plant and care for trees.
St Barbe, talking to a group of 40 children and adults, had them stand with their eyes closed and their arms outstretched. He said, "Have you ever imagined yourself to be a tree? Say to yourself, 'I'm a tree. I've got roots digging deep into Mother Earth. All about me I have branches sprouting into leaves.' Now hold that sprouting image for a moment. Just for a moment."
As the children and adults slowly opened their eyes, letting their thoughts drift from the image of being a tree to the circle of friends on the grassy hillside above the ocean, they saw a very old man and ten-year-old girl standing beside a young apple tree in the center of the circle. Together, the old man and the girl put the first spade full of soil into the hole surrounding the roots of the tree, and the old man again lifted his voice as he softly and clearly quoted Henry Van Dyke, "He that planteth a tree is a servant of God. He provideth a kindness for future generations and faces he hath not seen shall bless him."
Ninety-two-year-old Richard St. Barbe Baker, known throughout the world as the "Man of the Trees," was making his twentieth pilgrimage to the redwoods of California. Although he was ill on this day, he conducted the tree-planting ceremony with ease. And as each person in turn sprinkled a handful of soil around the roots of the tree and followed it with a handful of water, St. Barbe asked that they each hold a good thought, because good thoughts, he said, "also will help the tree grow."²
Baker's concern was not only with deforestation but also with the destruction of life and the human spirit, and he lived in such a way that he gave more to life than he used. Baker, as a young forester in the colonial service, once planted trees with 4,000 children in Palestine. He spent most of his life teaching children and adults, but mostly children, about trees and how to plant them.
What if Richard St. Barbe Baker had asked, "What can I do?" and had concluded, "Nothing." Millions of trees would not have been planted around the world by thousands of children who will become thousands of adults who just may teach many more thousands of children—their own—about trees and how to plant them.
The third story, from the movie, My Name Is Bill W., is about Bill Wilson, who was born around the turn of the century. He had one major problem. He was a severe alcoholic.
Bill was a dreamer, a visionary in a sense. He also was an entrepreneur and made a lot of money in the stock market. As his financial success increased, so did his social life and the horrors of his drinking. His father-in-law, a medical doctor, having watched the escalating consumption of alcohol, was finally able, with considerable effort, to break through his daughter's coping mechanism of minimizing Bill's drinking problem.
In turn, Lois, Bill's wife, managed to convince him to see a doctor who specialized in treating alcoholics, where Bill found out that his liver was dangerously enlarged. But this shocking discovery did little, if anything, to deter Bill's downward spiral into the bottle. He drank. And he drank. And when the stock market crashed in 1929, so did Bill.
All his life, Bill had had a strange and deeply entrenched feeling that he was somehow "different" from his friends. He felt isolated, constantly uptight, and alone, and he thought that in order for him to succeed, to be accepted, and to be acceptable he had to exert twice as much effort as anyone else.
He was so constantly threatened by this notion that he found relief in the bottle. It gave him the much-needed courage to participate in life. It gave him a feeling of strength, which enabled him to "successfully" interact with others, but only when he had the power of the bottle supporting him. After a few drinks, he became outgoing, courageous, strong, and enthusiastic. The bottle had become his backbone.
The hidden life of an alcoholic is one of despair and numbness, and so, despite the efforts of his devoted wife, Bill was eventually admitted to a sanatorium where, strapped to a hospital bed, he realized that he was helpless to defeat his alcoholism alone. Dried out once again, he was able to abstain from drinking for five months, and his life began to turn around, although it was a day-by-day struggle to remain sober.
Now problems of a different sort arose. Lois, as a classic enabling, co-dependent personality (who had known how to relate to Bill as a drunk all their married life), suddenly had to learn how to relate to Bill as a sober husband. In addition, during his first five months of sobriety, Bill collected drunks from off the street and brought them to his house, where he sat them in a circle and preached to them.
He tried to reform them, only to find them drunk on the street again. His frustration mounted as he discovered that his role as a well-meaning, evangelical, dried-out savior did not work. It was during this time, while struggling to rebuild his life, that his work took him from New York City to Akron, Ohio, where he would be faced with his most strenuous test—could he stay sober?
Registered in a hotel with several hours of free time, he paced back and forth through the lobby desperately trying to stay out of the lounge. When his willpower failed, he walked into the lounge and slapped his money on the bar. Pausing, he asked for a dollar's worth of nickles. Nickles in hand, he strode out of the lounge with determination.
In the hotel lobby was a billboard listing all churches in town along with the names of the ministers. Bill called every minister and asked to be given the name of a drunk with instructions of how to get in touch with him. He explained that he himself was a drunk who was now sober and that he needed another person with whom he could visit, a drunk who had been where he had been and had been where he was now. He was finally given the name of a local surgeon and drunk, Dr. Bob Smith.
Dr. Bob was not exactly exuberant when Bill showed up. He was, in fact, suspicious that Bill was just another preacher, another counselor, another well-meaning person trying to reform him, and he had already tried all the known "cures," but to no avail. Dr. Bob, who had been sober for two weeks when Bill showed up, fired a question at Bill, "Just what do you think a man like you can do for me?" "I didn't come here to help you," Bill stated flatly, "I came here for you to help me!"
A deep bond of trust and relatedness quickly developed as they began to talk. They realized that, as one drunk to another, they could share deeply and that, as a team of mutual support and encouragement, they could stay sober minute to minute, day to day. As their love and respect for each other grew, they began reaching out to other drunks in the community. By interacting with one another on the basis of "We're all in this soup together" and by arguing for one another's sobriety and dignity, Dr. Bob's and Bill's experiment worked in a way that Bill's solitary preaching could not.
The tentacles of the idea soon began to spread into a network of groups, each sitting in a circle with one drunk helping another by saying, "Hi, my name is Bill W., and I'm an alcoholic." Out of the excruciating pain and anguish, out of the life-threatening, life-stealing experiences of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, from this desperate and meager beginning, the amazingly successful Twelve Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous was born. Since its inception, when two drunks got together to help each other, the A.A. program has helped millions of people. Today, there are 75,000 A.A. chapters in over 115 countries.
Because one man shared his idea with another, countless people all over the world have been able to lift their heads and resume their lives with dignity, each with the A.A. motto etched in his or her heart and poised on his or her lips, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."
What if Bill Wilson had not had the courage to say no to alcohol and yes to life in that lounge in Akron, Ohio, what if Bill Wilson had said, "I can't change," how many people would be hanging their heads in shame rather than lifting them in the dignity they deserve?
Finally, there is Dan Whitney. Dan was a hemophiliac, also called a "bleeder," because his blood lacks the clotting factor, and once he starts bleeding, his body can't stop. The article, The gift of life, gift of death,³ was about the blood transfusions, which gave Dan life as a boy and gave him AIDS as a man.
Before Dan died, he said, "Something in me is fighting, just hanging on, and I don't seem to have any control over it. I think a lot of it is love—I'm in love with my friends and my family. It's so life-giving to receive love and support."
A week before Dan died he said, "HIV-positives and other sick people have to find peace, and lately I feel like I've come close to finding my inner peace." He said, "I'm not a Buddhist, but I give thanks to him, because he represents everything I can internalize to bring me happiness and peace until I put my life, my ashes, in a tree—a magnolia tree. I want to have my parents be able to look out when I'm gone and see me and my God-nature."
The Whitneys planted a magnolia tree in the Peace Garden of the First Congregational Church on March 20, 1989, the day Dan would have turned 28 years old.
Dan had consciously lived with death his whole life, and he understood the meaning of life and that all we have in life is NOW, this very moment. Yes, he received love but no more than he gave. Dan taught love in his giving of love, because he understood it. Dan exemplified Leo Buscaglia's definition of love: "If you were to define love, the only word big enough to engulf it all would be 'life.' Love is life in all its aspects. And if you miss love, you miss life. Please don't."
What if Dan had asked, "What can I do?" and had concluded, "Nothing." Rather than teaching love, Dan could have taught bitterness, self-pity, and hate, but he didn't, and because he didn't, his story was written as a light in the world, and he has now touched me also and given me an example of how to live.
In fact, Dan's story reminds me of two brothers with whom I went to grade school, both of whom died of hemophilia. I remember the oldest boy sitting on the edge of a table in the classroom, as several of us were. We were swinging our legs back and forth under the table, but this boy could not do that simple, childlike thing, because he might hemorrhage. It struck me then, even as a child in the second or third grade, that I had a gift beyond price. I could swing my legs and play without fear.
From where I stand, I see a multitude of people, each with a gift to give, one that is unique and priceless in and to our world. James Allen was speaking of these gifts when he wrote:
The greatest achievement was at first and for a time a dream. The oak sleeps in the acorn; the bird waits in the egg; and in the highest vision of the soul a waking angel stirs. Dreams are the seedlings of realities.
Your circumstances may be uncongenial, but they shall not long remain so if you but perceive an Ideal and strive to reach it. You cannot travel within and stand still without.⁴
It is our opportunity in life to give of our love, talent, and skill rather than to judge the effects of our giving. No one's love, talent, or skill is better, more splendid, or more important than any another. They are only different. And each is necessary to the wholeness of the world. Like the flowers on a tree, if one falls, the tree is diminished of its beauty. Omit one person's gift, and the potential for the world remains a fond imagining.
As we each struggle along our dimly lit path toward inner consciousness, we are a procession of candles in the night. A candle is but a tiny flame piercing the darkness. It is delicate, faltering at times perhaps, and yet it has a strength beyond our understanding, for a candle is not diminished of its light by lighting another candle. Its light only grows stronger with the added light of the other candle.
We human beings are candles—candles afraid of our own flame. We are candles with a sense of history, but no sense of destiny. We are candles afraid to burn with a sense of purpose, with a sense of dignity, with a sense of possibility, with a sense of vision. If, however, the darkness of global ignorance is to be lifted, if human dignity is to become the true foundation of a sustainable society in a sustainable environment, then we must become candles aflame with purpose, aflame with love, hope, and charity. And we must dare to share our light, for the world can be lighted only by candles of the human spirit—one, by one, by one—beginning with me and with you.
Hirsh, M. 1987. Silent Spring's message endures. The Associated Press. In: Corvallis Gazette-Times., Corvallis, OR. June 21.
Soulé, M. 1986. The man of the trees. Orion 5:4-13.
Wind, J. 1989. The gift of life gift of death. Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, OR. February 19.
Allen, J. 1981. As a man thinketh. Grosset & Dunlap, New York, NY.
©chris maser 2006. All rights reserved.