Some days it doesn’t feel like all the effort you do amounts to anything more than a single drop in an empty bucket. You show up the next day – there’s another drop. Eventually, you have a spoonful. Then enough to fill up a shot glass. you keep at it – day after day. It’s enough to fill up a cup. Then the cup starts running over. Slowly and surely, that bucket starts to get fuller and fuller – a quarter of the way, a third, half-way, two-thirds, three quarters. Eventually you find that you filled up that bucket, a drop at a time. Hard work and persistence won’t always earn an award, you won’t always get a trophy or ribbon. But you do get a sense of personal satisfaction that you did your best. You didn’t quit when others would have thrown in the towel. You made a difference for the better. Maybe it’ll also inspire others to match your effort and contribute to filling up that bucket faster. The problem gets smaller and things get easier on everyone. Some days it doesn’t feel like all the effort you do amounts to anything more than a single drop in an empty bucket – and that’s a challenge worth tackling head-on.
I push open these double wooden doors – they’re stained a beautiful dark rosewood. My eye is drawn to the purple carpet that marks the aisle all the way forward to a raised platform. It separates two groups of chairs. There seems to be a decidedly purple and white theme to the flower arrangements. Soon groups of people begin arriving and conversing with one another. Mostly they know each other, they all mean something to the guest of honor, and the guest of honor all mean something to them. This is a celebration.
The guest of honor is the matriarch – an older lady of average height, her short hair has a defiant red tint to it – hence her long-time nickname, “Red.” Her strong personality had developed as she conquered many obstacles in her day. As a result, her relationships could be complicated and no strangers to drama – but today is a good day and there’s no hard feelings. It’s also a miraculous day. Friends that she had long out-lived made an appearance alongside all her relatives.
Memories are being shared – some for the first time, others are being repeated much to Red’s delight. All of her favorite foods and drinks are available should anyone get hungry. I’d like to imagine laughter and delight. Everybody should be celebrated because everyone matters.
But such a celebration can never be. My grandmother has died. We found out on Christmas day that things weren’t looking so good. I asked for some time off the next day – but had to work my shift that evening. Some time in the middle of the night or the next morning – I’m not sure which, she stopped breathing. I’m not at all sure how to process it. Could I have insisted that I couldn’t work my shift so that my family could leave immediately and have a chance of meeting her while she was still alive? My only comfort is knowing that in many cases, despite hours of waiting alongside an ailing relative, they tend to like to pass away when the visiting hours are done and others aren’t around – so says the internet anyway.
I wish I knew where her obituary was – so I could read a little more about her. I wish I had bothered to actually call her every now and then just to talk a little.
For those who know my grandmother, her strong personality made for complicated relationships – it doesn’t mean that we love her any less … it’s just not always an easy kind of love. I grew up watching these kind, sweet grandmothers on TV shows – and my own grandmother was just so different. I wished in so many ways that she was like them – and I didn’t notice that she had her own charms about her. Some of the things I admire most are that fierce independence, that no-nonsense attitude, and she knew what she liked and didn’t hesitate to make it clear.
Her name meant Shining Light, Pride/Fame/Glory, and Blessed. That she most certainly was.
Not long ago, a lot of protected land was opened up for potential development. I shook my head in disbelief when the guy said, “You know how to take care of your land.” The whole history of pollution is a testament to how little we have take care of our land.
Centralia, PA – In May of 1962, an underground coal mine has a coal seam that catchs fire from the burning of a trash dump – it’s still burning today.
Picher, OK – a former lead and zinc mining area, lots of toxic remnants were placed in heaps in the area, which in turn has polluted the water table. One study suggested that as many as 1/3 of the children in town were suffering the effects of lead poisoning. The mines themselves also pose a danger – they could collapse and the buildings above would be taken down with them.
Cuyahoga River – perhaps the most famous example; these polluted waters once caught fire.
When pollution is a factor, what comes first? Usually it’s the bottom line, the cheaper disposal method; rather than the proper, more expensive one. When the priority is putting people to work, putting any thought into pollution control seems like you’re trying to put the brakes on progress. Never mind that putting people into pollution control is also creating jobs.
The whole history of pollution shows us that we never have known the best way to take care of our land … because we didn’t do that well, it put human lives on the brink – destroying the health and vitality of some – taking the lives of others. It may be annoying that waste chemicals can’t just be dumped into our water supply or that mine remnants can’t just be dumped in huge piles all around town – that even nuclear waste has to be sealed away in very specific conditions – but it’s far better than the alternative. We might not know how best to take care of our land, but at a very high cost we have learned how not to take care of our land. Sometimes the best thing you can do for some land is to let it be at least a little wild and to leave it alone.
“C’mon, for once in your life – just come and …” my co-worker argued, trying to get me to go to a place that is most definitely not my scene to do something I probably wouldn’t enjoy.
I’ve already been too far down that road and I know how empty it is. Let’s say, for the sake of argument – I agree. What about next time? Something else? Yes. Yes. Yes. Of course. Tell me when and where. I’m game for anything. Who do I become? Someone else I don’t even recognize.
You know, they’re never just satisfied with once. As soon as you make them happy with one thing, they’ll want something else. Ultimately, I lose any sense of self when I do what people in my life want me to do. Maybe that’s not fair, friend should enjoy doing the same sort of activities – but why do they always have to pick things that they know full well are outside of my comfort zone?
I used to never say no and whatever my friends wanted, I saw it got done. From getting drinks to casting out a member of the group – I did whatever it took to make them happy hoping that I’d never be the one on the outside. Whatever my friends liked, I absoultely adored. Whatever my friends hated, I hated with a passion. Ultimately though, that strategy didn’t keep them. It proved a failure. So I somehow or other learned to say no. Admittedly, it’s not hard when they choose things that just don’t work for you.
Now I pretty much never say yes – at least I’m a lot stronger than I used to be. Maybe it’s not too late for me to learn some balance, to throw in some yesses in there – but only if they are things that are within reason.
I’m a cashier. It’s not a glamorous or well-paying job, but it’s the best I can do right now. I’m also multi-lingual, I enjoy learning languages because I’m good at it and I enjoy speaking in other languages whenever I get the chance. I happen to be lucky enough to live where I can use two of the languages I know on a regular basis. So the other night, after I had spoken some Spanish to a Spanish-speaking customer, the next guy in line waited until the Latino was out of earshot and then informed me that while it was cool that I could speak other languages, it was not cool for the Latino to not speak English in America. Actually, he used a couple of racial slurs for Latinos and Arabs that even I will not repeat. My guess is that he was more upset that I was speaking Spanish and giving the Latino one less excuse to not learn English. The Latino though, was a repeat customer and I already knew he could speak English; in fact, his English is probably a lot better than my Spanish which needs all the practice it can get. For some odd reason, bilingualism is a threat to the English-Only Movement’s ideology that only English must be spoken in America and it must be spoken all the time. Sadly, my state is one of many with English-Only laws in effect. One lady even made the news for the racist tirade she went on while waiting in the return line at a mall:
Free speech can be painfully annoying when it grants jerks the right to say vile, hurtful, and racist remarks; but I also have the right to free speech and to speak freely in any language that I happen to speak. Maybe being multilingual has taught be a thing or two about being respectful; something that some English-only advocates could benefit from learning. What really bothers me is that the way these people speak, it’s not about patriotism, but racism. It’s the kind of racism that unfairly targets immigrants that are Arabic, Latino, and Asian while not treating European immigrants as anything dangerous or suspicious. It’s the garden-variety of racism that is skin deep when it comes right down to it. There are no shortage of rants on YouTube similar to the one above. A man interrupting a kindergarten concert to chant: “U.S.A English Only!” A profanity-laced tirade of one guy annoyed that somebody else was having a conversation in Spanish on his cell phone with his Spanish-speaking mother while waiting at the airport to catch their respective flights. Shoppers at Wal-mart insulting other shoppers who happen to speak Spanish to each other in their vicinity. A grandmother at a fast-food joint insulting a lady who speaks English with a noticeable accent. “Speak English or go home!” They all eventually say. Funny. Those were the same words their very own ancestors were screamed at when they first arrived on America’s “welcoming” shores. You know what, I think I’ll go on speaking Spanish and I’ll learn Arabic just because I can.
“You know how it is, when nobody else is giving it a hundred percent, you realize that it’s not worth it and start letting things slide.”
I blinked. I couldn’t fathom not giving it my all, my best, all the time. How you work says a lot about your character.
Perhaps the theology of work still rolls around in the back of my mind. The story of the workers in the vineyard, the parable of the talents, the verse about working as if you’re working for the Lord, and the lengthy Bible Study I did on the subject while I was in the midst of unemployment, but something in me told me that it was wrong to not work to the best of your ability.
For me, I like to be satisfied in knowing that I did the best that I could and I didn’t hold back or do half-measures. I challenge myself to do well, to do better, to work more quickly, to work accurately so that when my head hits my pillow at night, I know that I worked well.
It’s more than that. I remember watching this comedy, the story isn’t all that important, but one refrain was “Be excellent to each other.” This idea – well, it caught on and paved the way for the world to clean up it’s act and finally be at peace – plus they got good music. In a way, that’s what I believe.
It means to do your best and to treat others exceedingly well. It means to dare others to rise to the challenge of meeting their potential. It means … well, to borrow a quote from another movie:
Akeelah: [quoting Marianne Williamson] Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
Dr. Larabee: Does that mean anything to you?
Akeelah: I don’t know.
Dr. Larabee: It’s written in plain English. What does it mean?
Akeelah: That I’m not supposed to be afraid?
Dr. Larabee: Afraid of what?
Akeelah: Afraid of… me?
I think that for so long, we end up aiming for somewhere in the middle. Sure, we could do more or better if we applied ourselves, but it nobody else is, why bother? Anyone who stands out in any way seems to get too much attention, either good or bad. We don’t want that. We want to be good, but not too good. We want to do well, but not too well.
Let’s face it, people who are excellent, who choose to be the best at what they do – their effort is often rewarded. It’s not that they’ll get a plaque or trophy or bonus, as nice as that would be, but they get personal satisfaction and pride. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want that.
“Hey, I could have gotten everything done, but I choose to do only 2/3 of my work instead.”
“Hey, I could have gotten an A, but I settled for a B.”
“Hey, I could have gotten first, but I didn’t feel like it and took second.”
Pretty soon, that becomes:
“Hey, I could have gotten 2/3 of my work done, but I chose to do only half.”
“Hey, I could have gotten a B, but a C was so much less taxing.”
“Hey, I could have gotten second, but forth was easier.”
“I could have opened that door, but I didn’t feel like it.”
“I could have said something kinder, but I changed my mind.”
“I could have reached that for her, but it was funnier watching her jump for it.”
Excellence isn’t the worst thing ever. We should strive to leave mediocrity behind us.
Sometimes I like to imagine what it might have been like for Jesus’ disciples as they were travelling with him from one place to the next. It’s in the cool of the evening. They have set up camp. They’re sitting down, giving their tired, dirty feet a rest. The disciples – all of them, both “the twelve” and “the women”; the ones who had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs, cook the meals, provide financial support with their own money, were also in close range so that they could hear his instruction.
They’d simply talk. Jesus was training these to be his insiders, so he explained things clearly and simply. The intimate conversations are the sorts of things that the Bible doesn’t clue us in on, but it does indicate they happened. I think about Jesus’ character, the salt-of-the-earth person that he was. He wasn’t a rabbi who was big on the prestige and title. He was just a guy who had a way of speaking the truth and reading people’s thoughts and emotions.
Anyway, I think he had a particular ethic. He was a pacifist in a society where violence was ordinary and commonplace. He was merciful and compassionate; when a sea of people searched him out to be cured of their illnesses, He healed them. Whenever there was a circumstance when the proper thing to do was to shun somebody – Jesus would do the opposite. It wasn’t in his nature to be an enemy of any living soul.
That’s how I’d like to be. I know this world doesn’t make it easy. Some Christians make it harder than it needs to be by insisting that their version is the only way, the only truth, and the only life and only through them and their teachings can true salvation be secured. Jesus had to deal with people like that, people who were technically right if the letter of the law were the most important thing – but they were actually wrong because the missed the spirit.
I’ve been walked through the plan of salvation over and over again by Christians such as these, so determined to win me over to their version that they cannot see the flaws in their foundation. I don’t want a technically correct Jesus that lacks the empathetic spirit of Jesus. What good does it do to have a form of godliness through following these rules, but to deny the freedom-giving power of rule-breaking godliness in the process?
Some days, I wish I were on that road, speaking with Jesus about today. Asking him: how I can make room around our campfire for anyone regardless of who they are or what they’ve done? How can I bring healing balm to those as wounded as I am from extensive fighting on this invisible front? How can we declare a truce and begin talks in order to restore true, lasting peace?