The Legacy of Lives Affected

Touch of a rose.

Going to church one Sunday during college, I got a ride with an older couple. As I chatted, telling them about my family, I mentioned my grandfather.

“John Gration?” the man asked. “Is that your grandfather?”

“Yes,” I replied, wondering the reason for his question.

“Many years ago, we both lived in the same area. We’re good friends.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Perhaps it’s because of the circles I travel in, but I’m constantly running into people who know my grandfather – people he touched.

And he touched many people. Across his numerous professions – member of the navy at Camp Shoemaker, missionary in Kenya and Congo, professor at Wheaton College, and several others – he provides a clear example of what it means to live in service. As with many of my heroes, he’s an example of what it means to affect people.

I know because I am one of the affected.

***

i admire the rose
its magnificent bloom
with full attention
and can’t help but notice

its magnificent bloom
the beauty
the life

with full attention
attempting to comprehend
all the beauty that’s there

and can’t help but notice
that the rose looks back
with the same attention

One time when I was staying with my grandparents for a holiday, Grandpa asked me how computers worked. He was curious.

As we talked, I felt like I was the only other person in the room. He wasn’t distracted. He didn’t check his watch. He didn’t look around the room at the paintings. I had his full attention.

But his expression was not the only evidence of his attention. He participated in the conversation. He actively engaged what I said.

We talked back and forth. I explained a component. He asked a clarifying question. Step by step we approached understanding. And for all of my grandfather’s brilliance, he made me feel like an expert.

I felt valued. I felt honored.

A few months after I graduated from college, I was talking with my grandfather. He asked me how I was doing.

Surface answers didn’t satisfy him. I couldn’t get away with saying fine and moving on. He probed deeper.

I told him about the people I worked with. I described the work I was doing. I shared how I was enjoying the work. I told him about the opportunities I had to grow and learn.

Grandpa wanted to know what was going on in my life. And as I conveyed my excitement for what I was doing, he was excited with me. He joined me in my joy.

My grandfather wasn’t pretending. He wasn’t acting. He genuinely cared. He was interested in what I was saying. And it showed.

I’ve seen it in the countless times I’ve talked to him. I’ve seen it when he talks to others. He recognizes people. He celebrates who they are. For him, they are beautiful in their own right. Their humanity is reason enough to pay them respect.

When you give someone the gift of your attention, you make them feel valued. When you honor who they are, you affect them.

***

the rose always gives
a constant effort to add
blessing to people

Never subtracting, my grandfather adds to people. He seeks to leave the other person with more than they started with.

Sometimes he adds stories from the richness of his experience.

Talking over dinner one night, I shared about a situation at school. My grandfather, having a wealth of experiences to call upon, had a story of when he faced a similar situation. He began the story.

He told about an experience in the navy. That story reminded him of another one. He told about someone he knew from Kenya. Then he told about a recent conversation with a former student of his. The rabbit trail continued, and we never did circle back to the beginning. But that was OK.

It was OK because the stories were fascinating. And by the time he got to the end, I’d learned more than I bargained for.

Sometimes he meets a specific need.

Toward the end of my freshman year of college, I struggled to find a job for the summer. My wanting to work near Wheaton, where I have family, complicated matters. It was hard to search for a job in a city four hours’ drive from where I went to school.

My grandfather called upon his network at Wheaton College. He connected me with the paint department, and I got a job there. It was a perfect position.

Other times he provides guidance and advice.

As a high school senior, my first choice college was the University of Illinois. They had a top rated engineering program, and as a state resident, I’d have a lower tuition. I was all set.

Until I didn’t get in.

My grandfather helped me explore other options, compensating for our difficulty in doing research from Kenya. We examined taking a chance with the wait list, attending a satellite school, transferring after a few semesters, and attending another college. We eventually picked the latter option.

Throughout the whole process, I was struck by how he wanted the best for me – sometimes even more than I did. He wanted me to thrive.

Regardless of the need, he always goes over the top. His service is extravagant.

Occasionally, I stayed at my grandparents’ house. They made sure I had everything I needed and more – especially when it came to food. Grandpa always told me that if I went hungry at their house, it was my fault. He’d say that after offering me another piece of fruit, slice of bread, or bowl of cereal.

I never went hungry.

People remember when you help them. They remember that you put aside your agenda and offer them encouragement and assistance.

***

the rose reminds us
that there is much more to life
than seriousness

Our family often visited my grandparents for a meal. We enjoyed an evening of good food and conversation. After saying our goodbyes, we piled into the car to go home.

As we pulled out of the driveway, Grandpa ran alongside the car making funny faces in the window. Naturally, we returned the favor. The end result was laughter for everyone.

Affecting people is not always serious business. Remind people of the lightness and joy of life. Give them reason to laugh.

***

Although the rose may be a testament
To generosity so good and right
It ensures that it’s never overspent
By drawing water and basking in light

For all the attention and importance he placed on those around him, my grandfather never neglects to take care of himself.

He cares for his spiritual health. He spends time in prayer and meditation. He ponders and memorizes the scriptures.

He cares for his physical health. He eats well. He exercises as much as he’s able to.

He cares for his mental health. He reads books. He expands his knowledge.

He cares for his social health. He cherishes his wife and family. He connects with friends across the world.

If you are to affect others, be sure to give yourself a platform to stand on. Spending time on yourself ensures you have energy for others.

***

The smile brought about
by the fair rose’s beauty
gets passed to others

This past Thanksgiving, my entire extended family joined together for a meal. We traveled from across the globe to come together. Our celebrations testify to the legacy of my grandfather. Our love stands as a witness to the practices and habits he established. We are four generations of lives affected by his example.

***

Illness and old age may rob him of his physical strength, sharp mind, and sometimes even his memory, but I’ll always see the man that he is. I see him and remember how he affected others. I see him and remember how he affected me.

once to me a rose was given
a blessed sprig of bold and beauty
but now the rose is fading
an echo of its former splendor

a blessed sprig of bold and beauty
a touch of life and love and grace
for me and for others all around

but now the rose is fading
color dimmed by creeping brown
drooping low into a humble bow

an echo of its former splendor
but still i see it and remember
all the blessing that it is to me

###

PHOTO: Touch of a rose.

PS: Happy birthday, Mom.

The Implications of Extravagant Service

Remembering a life of service.

I walk the streets of downtown Chicago, lost in the details of some insignificant thought. Though I walk through a crowd, I am alone.

Interruption – a man calls out to me. His dirty, cardboard sign tells of his situation. Layer upon layer of well-worn clothing combine to keep him warm against the chill. He asks me for change. “I just want something warm to eat,” he pleads.

Looking at him, I ponder how to respond. I run through my usual answers.

I could ignore him. But I’ve already acknowledged his request so that would be rude.

I could pretend I’m not able to give. “Sorry, I don’t have any change.” Although it is painfully obvious that is a lie.

I could do what I often do and brush him off with a hurried no. “Not today,” I’d mutter without any discussion of why today in particular isn’t good for giving.

Or I could reach into my wallet, grab a dollar bill, place it in his cup, and move on with life – content that I’d fulfilled my duty to generosity today.

These options flash through my head in an instant. I weigh each of them in the span of a few heartbeats. A recent event comes to mind, and I know what to do.

***

Bare ingredients
Necessary nutrition
Sustenance of life

Earlier in the week, my wife and I prepared a meal for some friends of ours. They just had a baby, and as is the tradition of our community, we helped by giving them one less thing to worry about.

We brought pizza. And what a delight it was to prepare that pizza. I made the dough fresh that day, stewed the sauce from a fine can of tomatoes, crumbled the cheese on top, and seasoned it all with freshly picked basil. It was one of the best pizzas I’ve made. Often, when you work for others, you do your best work.

Sitting in their home, we talked with our friends as they enjoyed the pizza. We laughed. We played with their little child. We were grateful, and so were they.

It is said that it is more blessed to give than receive, but I’m not sure anymore. The recipient gains something of value and beauty. You gain the joy of helping them. And in the exchange, the importance of who gained more becomes irrelevant. It is the coming together of people that matters.

Service strips your world to the barest elements of humanity. The ego fades. Pride moves to the background. In their place, you find human connection. You find satisfaction and meaning.

I reflected on Tolstoy’s words: “Joy can be real only if people look upon their life as a service, and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.” I had just witnessed their truth.

Service, that is what I want to be known for. That is the foundation I wish to rest my work and life upon.

Life as a service
The cornerstone of meaning
Foundations of joy

***

After bidding farewell to the man on the corner, I continue on my way. Thoughts tumble through my head. Whatever I was thinking of before is gone, replaced by the memory of our encounter.

I remember how I told him, “Sure,” and pulled out my wallet.

I remember the sharpness of the twenty dollar note I picked out. Crisp – it’s perfection broken only by a fold in the middle. Valuable – useful to me and useful to him.

I remember the face of the man as I placed it in his red, plastic cup. Disbelief and gratitude split his expression. Overwhelmed, he muttered a soft thank you and extended his arm, offering a hug of thanks.

I remember our hug. A physical manifestation of the connection.

I remember our conversation, however short it was. He told me about his children, all grown up. He told me about how he was going to see them for the holidays.

I remember our parting, both of us changed by the encounter.

I remember my thoughts on service from earlier in the week.

And I am left a question. What if my entire life – with each story, with each piece of poetry, with each work of art, with each friendship, with each interaction – hinged on serving others on that level? To give gifts of such a magnitude that they leave the other overwhelmed with gratitude. To shatter expectations. To affect another human being. And through it all, to become affected.

I’m still coming to terms with the implications of that question.

###

PHOTO: Remembering a life of service. Chicago, IL.

PS: My thanks to Sasha Dichter and Julien Smith for challenging the way I think about generosity and art.