Well, the semester is over; those uneducational final grades that have little if anything to do with learning are in; my angelic Susan thankfully is recovering slowly but nicely from her successful spinal operation; we’ve got relatives coming in from out-of-town to be with Susan next week; we have my sons on call in the wings thereafter if they’re needed; and, reluctantly–very reluctantly–Friday night I’m off to China for a tad over three weeks to teach in the remainder of the Study Abroad program.
A few days ago, as if I was a guest on “Actor’s Studio,’ a student asked me how would I like my life to be measured as I stood before the pearly gates. Her question took me back to an incident that occurred the previous Sunday. Well, it didn’t really take me back since it never has left me. Anyway, that Sunday was the first day of my congregation’s fund-raising corn-beef sandwich sale that has become a tradition in Valdosta. I was running around like a proverbial chicken without its head. I was especially working hard since I couldn’t help significantly with all the preparations leading up to the sale because I was tending to Susan; and, on Monday, when the rush really would hit and we’d push over 3,000 sandwich luncheons out the door, Susan would be in surgery. As I was filling orders from the endless line of cars coming through our makeshift pass-through, a friend came up to me and grabbed my arm, telling me that someone inside the synagogue wanted to see me. I replied that I didn’t have the time and to tell him I’m busy.
“Make the time,” Carl answered firmly. “He said he came to eat his sandwich in the synagogue especially to see if he could talk with you.”
Reluctantly, I got off the line for what I thought was going to be a mere hello and handshake. Carl brought a gray haired man up to me. He tightly grabbed my hand, looked intensely into my eyes, and with a shaky voice introduced himself and said, “Dr. Schmier, I know you don’t remember me, but I had you for class the first quarter you were here at the college ….”
“August, 1967? I don’t want to know about that. Hey, I’m too young to have had you in class way back then,” I interrupted with a laugh, making a joke about my longevity at the University.
But, I did not expect what he was about to say. It certainly was neither “mere” nor “joke.” Not hearing me, keeping my hand firmly in his grasp and his eyes focused on me, he went on, “I know you’re busy, but for a long time I’ve wanted you to know that you changed my life in that class. You kept on me and forced me to see abilities and potentials in me that you saw and I didn’t. You never let me settle for ‘getting by’ because you saw how ‘amazing’ I could be. Because of you, I am the person and businessman I am. You taught me what I needed to be a successful businessman and live a good life.”
After all these decades! Twenty-five years before my epiphany! In the years that I later judged myself to be an aloof, demanding s.o.b of a pontificating, judgmental professor intent on making a scholarly name for himself. You want to talk about being stunned? I felt like all the air had been sucked out from my lungs. I froze. Stopped breathing. Went limp. It was suddenly hot. No, there was nothing “mere” or “joking” in the sincerity of his words. He said more, but I don’t really remember. Now, it was my turn for glassy eyes and shaky voice. All I could muster was a soft, humble, stuttering, “Thank you, that means a great deal to me, more than you can know.” I promised to have lunch with him immediately after I returned from China in June. With a deep breath, a very deep breath, I wiped my eyes and I went back on the line.
So, my answer to this student was quick and simple: “I want to be measured by a man named Jim Hathaway. I’ve concluded that by any measure, I will not be assessed by dollars or reputation, by degrees, titles, or publications, but by the individual people whose lives I’ve touched knowingly or otherwise. I think that’s the way it works, and anyone who thinks otherwise is in for a big surprise. For a long time, a few months short of the last twenty years in fact, I have not been concerned with the level of individual prominence I may have achieved, about my degrees, title, resume, bank account, cars, clothes, houses, or any material stuff like that; I’ve not been concerned with the length of my resume; I’ve not been concerned with awards and recognitions. I’ve learned that it’s all about what some call ‘connection;’ I call it ‘compassionate listening’ with my ears and eyes. I’ve learned that it’s crucial to listen with the willingness to serve and help others, not to judge or to argue or sometimes even to answer and to react. I’ve learned to just to listen intensely with all my attention, and deeply care with all my heart, and profoundly understand with all my soul. So, I want to be measured by individuals I’ve seen, listened to, understood, cared about, loved, had faith in, had hope for, and have helped become better people; I want to be measured by those people who I have helped graduate not just as good students, but as good persons as well. I admit that is a very challenging commitment to keep every day, to compassionately listen to each and every student rather than conditionally and selectively as I did in the days Jim Hathaway was a student. Every day that commitment is tested, and I don’t always pass it. Every day I think, as I think we all should, about the measure by which my life will be judged, learn from my inevitable mistakes, and live better every day so I can measure up to that measure. In the end, my life will be judged by the extent to which I have been significant in someone’s life, not by having been prominent and important in my life. You see, I have concluded that to have lived a rich life is not to have lived a Metamucil life because it has nothing to do with being regular. It’s about being extraordinary; it’s about getting the most from each moment of each day; it’s about transforming ‘good enough,’ ‘getting by,’ or even ‘not good enough,’ into ‘amazing;’ it’s about making a difference in someone’s life; it’s about doing significant things. That’s the real substance of life. Like I have said many times, I would merely like it to be said at my eulogy and written on my tombstone, ‘He touched one student and changed the world.’ That’s how I want my life to be measured.”