We hear a lot about big gestures in this world of ours, about people who give enormous gifts of money or time, about spectacular examples of courage or devotion. It's easy to feel as if we must do something equally grandiose, something just as awe inspiring, in order to make a difference in the lives of others. But how many of us ever have the wherewithal to make that happen? Even though our hearts may be open, we have neither the way nor the means to be as magnanimous as we wish. So instead we pull back, we say we can't help, we have nothing to give.
And we are so wrong in that assumption.
There is a young man I know who heads a project in our city which helps immigrants become legal residents of the United States. Sometimes, despite the best efforts of the volunteers involved, people are denied legal status and deported back to their country of origin. He spoke of visiting several of these people in a holding center where they were awaiting deportation.
"I had never been to visit the detainee's before," he said. "I didn't know how I could help. But I went, and I spent the afternoon sitting with them and talking and holding their hands. When I left, many of them thanked me, thanked me profusely, and I felt like a fraud. I didn't think I deserved their gratitude, for after all, what had I done? What earthly use were my words when they were facing the destruction of their hopes and dreams for a better life?"
Here he stopped talking, obviously emotional, before continuing on. "One of the men told me how much it helped him to have someone listen to his story, someone to acknowledge his struggle, someone just to notice that he had been here."
Sometimes, simply taking note of someone's presence is a big gesture. Who would have thought?
We laughingly call my mother the neighborhood shrink, because for many years she has been the one her friends call to discuss all their problems. Sometimes, especially when she is in the midst of life-troubles of her own, she will say "what do they think I can to for them? I can't even help myself!"
"But you're a wonderful listener," I tell her, "and maybe that's all they really need, is someone to listen."
The gift of a listening ear. Not a big gesture, but an open hearted one all the same.
Free empathy, the title of Katrina Kenison's blog post today, also talks about the gift of lovingly bearing witness to another's struggle." She recalls the face of a man, sitting at a card table on a street corner in Santa Cruz, a handwritten sign offering "Free empathy."
There are times when I despair of making any kind of mark on the world, want to throw my hands into the air in disgust at my inability to effect change, my powerlessness to make the kind of big gestures that have lasting impact.
But Kension says "we won’t save the world with big gestures or grand schemes, but by becoming better listeners. By asking how someone else is doing, and then taking time enough to put ourselves in their shoes, to see the world through their eyes."
By bearing witness, by taking notice - one person, one heartbreak, one small but open-hearted gesture at a time.
I think I can do that.
How about you?