The Power of One ?
“A society should be ultimately judged by how it treats the least fortunate among them.” Anon.
In the movie, “City Slickers”, Jack Palance ( Curly) and Billy Crystal ( Mitch) are alone trying to find a stray calf. Mitch has gone on this cattle drive trying to fill the void that has left him feeling so empty in middle age. Curly sagely confirms to Mitch that the secret of life is indeed “one thing” and proceeds to hold up a finger. As Mitch begs the grizzled cowboy to share his secret to happiness, Curly smiles and tells Mitch, “it’s up to you to find out what that one thing is”.
We all have certain friends whose disgusting altruism and innate sense of service to others puts us all to shame. As you get older you realize that life isn’t really about you, it’s about everyone else. If a person is lucky, they discover that by losing themselves in the service of others, they may end up finding themselves and liking what they find. These people become the convergence of good intentions and genuine action. As they refine these skills, they develop finely tuned eyes and ears that recognize every day the little opportunities to leave the world a better place. They have discovered their “one thing”.
I am pretty certain from watching children and adults that selfishness is a learned trait. I seem to have developed a healthy dose of self absorption from an early age. It has always been my natural default position to look out for old number one first. If I were to deconstruct situations where I was caught doing the right thing, I might discover a subtle self interest in each gesture, perhaps the need for praise, recognition, friendship, acceptance or forgiveness. The concept of actually giving unconditionally seems a very unnatural act. I mean what’s the point of doing something nice unless there is some sort of recognition? A parade would be nice….My close friend, Lloyd constantly referred to me as a massive work in progress and would always tell me that the ultimate act of selflessness was to give anonymously. “If you give and someone finds out, it doesn’t count. Try to do three nice things a day and not have anyone discover that you did them”. It just did not make sense that one would work so hard to do anything and not receive some sort of compensation.
My apprenticeship to joining the human race escalated in 1995 when I was introduced to a woman named Dianne Easton, Executive Director of a non profit program called Leadership San Francisco ( LSF). LSF brought together 24 for profit and 24 non profit executives for one year. LSF would meet once a month for all day sessions that were planned and coordinated by the delegates themselves. You attended an initial retreat where you chose the topics for the year. The issues were intentionally challenging: homelessness, education, health care, crime, AIDS, domestic violence, economic growth etc. Each team of four worked closely throughout the year with their partners to plan their one day event. The city and county of San Francisco opened its doors to the teams offering use of facilities, access to public officials and enabled special “homework assignments“ for attendees. The program served to educate members to issues that challenged the city as well as facilitated the critical public/private partnerships that were essential to bring lasting solutions to difficult problems. My most challenging homework assignment included a six hour ride along from midnight until 6am with the SFPD in the Tenderloin district. I saw first hand how law enforcement had to deal with issues around drug addiction, prostitution, property crime and domestic violence. It was a bit like the TV show “Cops” with me as the guy running behind the police as they worked the streets. There were sessions designed to shock, educate and motivate people to action.
In the AIDS/HIV day, I witnessed how a single woman, Ruth Brinker, started Project Open Hand – – making meals in the basement of an Episcopal church and delivering them to AIDS/HIV and critically ill shut-ins and seniors who could not care for themselves. The program just celebrated its 20th year and serves thousands throughout the city and country. I spent part of the Homeless day at shelters and at Glide Memorial church, meeting the dynamic Reverend Cecil Williams who built a fortress to combat poverty, crime and hopelessness – – a church that turns away no person and that understands that unconditional love can change lives and warm the corners of a cold, indifferent city.
What we all learned and witnessed over that year opened our eyes to the inequity and imbalance that exists in a society that has the means to provide for so many but does not seem to be able to often reach the most at risk. We learned that those seeking shelter often need to be present when shelters open their doors for beds and in needing to be present, find it hard to hold the jobs they might need to break their cycle of homelessness. Social services were not integrated and those in need with mental and physical conditions were often caught in between the seams of an overwhelmed system. We learned how difficult it is for a convicted felon to truly assimilate back into society. We saw the ravages of drug addiction and domestic violence. We also witnessed incredible acts of personal sacrifice and courage as individuals dedicated their lives to helping others and advocated for those who were too weak, disabled or incapable of speaking for themselves.
With each session, I found it increasingly hard to hide behind my age old rationalizations about giving to non profits and community based organizations. On the contrary, I met people who could take a few dollars and like biblical messiahs, feed masses with a few loaves of bread. I felt my my radius of responsibility that had once only extended to my family and my small suburban town change and broaden to a city, county, state and global community. It changed my life and now, instead of looking away, I now noticed the crushing need that existed right underneath my nose. A friend who ran a health center serving the Latino community told me that Mother Teresa once told someone who came to Calcutta that they did not need to come half way around the world to serve those in need. “Grow where you are planted” was all she said to the altruistic pilgrim.
When I think of LSF and the relationship I developed with incredible leaders of non profits and social services, I realize these people helped me discover my “one thing “. In the end, every human being longs to find that source of inspiration – – a calling larger than themselves that gives their life a sense of meaning and purpose.
So, what’s your “one thing “?