Good morning, night, evening, whatever. We back. It was an adventurous six weeks of eating interesting things, being in interesting places, and meeting interesting people. But, it’s good to be home. Kinda. While Susan and I don’t have to sleep literally on the plywood boards that double as mattresses in the dorms at Zhengzhou University or on hard mattresses characteristic of all the private homes, guest houses, and even five star hotels, our biological clocks are still twelve hours earlier in China. It makes for interesting times. Last night, for example, at 2:30 am EST, as if Susan and I were back in Shanghai’s New Heights Restaurant having lunch, we were wide awake, sipping wine, nibbling on shrimp, and starting to catch up on recorded TV shows we had missed while away. We’ve got to get things right since we’re driving out to the mid-west in a few days for a family gathering.
Anyway, I found 1837 e-mails waiting for me. Yes, 1837! I forget to set my Outlook on “no mail” and deliberately got near a computer only on the rarest occasion while in China. Though I exercised my index finger and quickly erased most of them, I was struck by three. Two were a deeply touching “thank you” from students, one of whom was in China with Susan and me. The third was from a professor in Ohio.
“What great difference can I really make? I’m only one person,” this professor had written way back at the beginning of May as I was flying over the Pacific in response to my last Random Thought on first year students. It’s something I hear and read all the time. It’s something I occasionally say to myself when I’m about to get down. Then, I think of such people as these two students. God, I wish I could violate confidence and let her read the two student e-letters. But, thinking of what those two students had said, every answer to her question that I came up with boiled down to simply that so often what we think is small can be unusually large and what appears to be insignificant at the moment can often be great.
I have a quote from Mark Twain near my computer. It says, “Life is too short to be little.” As a cancer survivor, all I can say is, “Ain’t that the truth.” For me, each day is a unique moment of opportunity in time too precious to be forgotten, too beautiful to be ignored, too meaningful to be without purpose. Sometimes the opportunities that seem the smallest are the most magical and magnificent. Small opportunities can go largely unnoticed. They’re are all around us. It’s the reverse of fishing. Forget going after the rare whopper. Cast for the everyday small ones and don’t let them get away. Even with small opportunities we can create something big. Every encounter, every challenge, every relationship, every situation is an opportunity to give of yourself in the service of others. Each day brings with it new ways to make a difference in people around you.
That’s not always easy. It takes discipline, commitment, awareness, creativity, humility, preparation, time, effort, resilience, and patience. I was reminded of that last week. I had decided to hike up Yunnan Province’s daunting 3,000 foot Liming Mountain that topped out at almost 10,000 feet above sea level. I hesitated. I didn’t know if I was in shape to make it since I hadn’t exercised in six weeks. The guide wasn’t sure this 66 year old body could do it. Nevertheless, I gave it a whirl. “What the hell,” I told Susan, “If I had to turn back ten minutes into the hike, I would turn back.”
It didn’t take but a few steps into the hike for my lungs to tell me that I wasn’t superman and in that rarified air I wasn’t going to leap a tall mountain in a single bound. But I found the secret to making it to the top. No bounding, just rhythmic plodding. To hike successfully to what’s called its “thousand tortoise” summit, I just had to patiently and slowly take one small step at a time in a steady cadence. And yet, as I took one small step after another, each slowly lost its insignificance as it became an essential contribution to a great hike.
Now, you say you can’t do that for each and every student? You say you can’t do it all? You say you don’t have the time? Maybe. But, the plodding was not the real secret to making the climb. It was my attitude. Yep, it’s all about attitude. As I hiked that mountain, my mind and heart were already at the summit. And, I discovered where they went, the rest of me, especially my lungs and feet, followed in their footsteps; that as I imagined being on the summit, I was already well on the way to reaching it. Remember, I didn’t know if I was in shape to make the physical climb, but my imagination was in shape to make the mental and spiritual climb. I set it free and it freed me of limitations. I allowed it to walk the releasing positive path instead of the enslaving negative one. I let it be my guide. It became the push and pull. It gave a purpose to each one step I took. It allowed me to make the climb. It upgraded my vision. It raised my expectations to the heights of that summit. Step by step I made it to the top. And, you know what? All this is not exaggeration. I still vividly remember that as I stood on the tortoise rock formations of the mountain’s pinnacle looking down the vastness of the Yulong Gorge, I uttered a “damn!” I was overwhelmed by a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. My imagination had shown me not just who I could be, but more importantly who I was. And, I will always remember that during any encounter with anyone at anytime in any place.
Sure, we cannot make a difference in every student’s life. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism, negativism, passivity, avoidance, disinterest, withdrawal, disengagement, disconnection, and inaction. We have to make these efforts knowing that though they may be hard and challenging, “hard” is not synonymous with “impossible” anymore than “challenging” is with “obstacle.” Why? The Talmud has the answer. It tells us that while we are not obligated to complete the work, neither are we free to abandon it. That means we don’t abandon the work because we never truly know if we can scale that mountain, how much work we can accomplish, and who we truly can become. It was and still is and will forever be a metaphoric lesson for teaching never to be lost on me.
Make it a good day.