Live Life in the Little

The beauty of a thousand details.

Occasionally, I’ll stop by the store on the way home and pick up a small bouquet. After grumbling at the high cost of flowers in the US, I remember what they are really worth. In terms of value for dollar, I can think of few better investments.

What they add to my relationship with my wife Sarah is immeasurable. For wrapped up in that gift is love, thought, and appreciation. It’s a little thing, but the little things are everything.

The big things matter, absolutely. A big present is always appreciated. But those are out of the ordinary. They only happen once in a while. Most often, life is small.

To live in the little is to be a hero. We love to point to the heroes that rise to the occasion and do something extraordinary. We admire their courage and effort. They are worth celebrating. But I believe the heroism of the ordinary takes more courage. It’s difficult.

It’s hard because the payoff usually isn’t immediate or visible. You may not see the results for days, months, years, or even at all. The act is done for it’s own sake.

It’s hard because it’s a choice. You can’t just be nice one time and call it done. You have to do it again, and again, and again. It’s a process that doesn’t end.

Be this kind of hero. Make people matter in the everyday:

Write a note: The first thing I do when I get home is check the mail. Some days, the mailbox is empty. Sometimes, I get a magazine like the Economist. Often there is junk mail, which only makes me not want to buy the product. But occasionally, someone sends me a personal note or card. Wow. It makes my day. That someone thought enough to write something on paper and send it – with a stamp – tells me I’m significant.

You can create the same effect for others. Send a quick note to to a friend. Say thank you to someone who helped you. It doesn’t have to be a long letter, although those are good too. Even the smallest act could brighten someone’s day.

Wish blessings to people: There is a man near my office named Willie. Every day he gives blessings to the people that go past. “May God bless you, and have a wonderful weekend,” he sings. Most people probably ignore him, but I’ve come to appreciate it. I like getting blessed. I like when people wish me a good day. Even though Willie is homeless and his situation is hard, he still wishes the best for others.

Apologize without inhibition: I am certain that you are all much better at this than I am. It’s taken a long time for me to even start to figure this out. The other day, I got home from being outside and the apartment was hot. For some reason it made me grumpy and cold in my greeting to my wife.

After steaming for a little while in my room, I came back out and said sorry. It was a small thing, and we would have moved on without any issue – we’re good at brushing those kind of things off. But the apology matters. It reinforces the relationship.

Help people: When I’m traveling and am not sure how to get where I’m going, I am grateful for the people who pause to help me. With a smile they tell me what train to take. Often, they even tell me about a shortcut or a good place to visit.

It’s easy to find people in need of help. It could be someone who dropped something, a man that tripped and fell, a lady struggling with a heavy bag, or, in my case, a clueless guy staring blankly at the subway map. Most often, helping doesn’t take much work on your part – just the initiation. But it makes a difference.

***

These are all small. They’re easy to ignore and not bother with. But they’re worth doing. What about you? What are some of the little things that you do?

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The beauty of a thousand details. I made this photo in Carol Stream, Illinois.

The Most Powerful Words

Hello, my name is Curious. What's yours?

Keith is a man that once stood on the street a block or two from my house. I don’t know if he was homeless, or just unemployed, but he was asking for money regardless. His smile masked the hardship of his situation.

Janice used to sit near my office. She was almost always there as I walked to work. Two milk crates provided her a chair to sit on. A cardboard sign told a snapshot of her story: homeless mother, needs food.

In each case, I knew them only because I paused long enough to ask them their names. The next time I saw them, I didn’t just say hello. Rather, I used their names: “How are you, Keith?” or “Glad to see you, Janice.” It changed the way we saw each other.

Names are a recognition of existence.

There is a beautiful greeting in the Zulu language: Sawubona. It means “I see you.” In that greeting is an acknowledgement of presence and worth. Saying someone’s name is Sawubona taken to the next level.

We all want to be recognized, no matter who we are. We all want people to tell us that they see us. Greet someone with their name and they will be seen.

Names describe the people that own them.

In the Christian Bible, God is known by his names – the Provider, the Creator, etc. The Koran describes Allah with the ninety-nine beautiful names. While most of us, Muammar Gaddafi excepted, don’t have that many names, the ones we do have represent us.

Sometimes the name itself may have special meaning. Janice means “Gift of God.” That is a perfect description of her. Most often though, the meaning is you. Who you are becomes part of the name.

Names are the doorway to conversation and relationship.

When I paused that first time to say hello to Janice, I had no idea that the conversation would last for almost a year. We’d talk about her children and how they were grown up and living far away. When she injured her leg, I’d ask how she was doing. If the day was sunny, we’d rejoice together. She almost always complimented me on my hat.

Keith always greeted me with a smile that was big and warm. He asked how I was doing. He petitioned me to pass on his greetings to my wife. I enjoyed talking to him, even if the conversation was short.

I knew only a portion of their stories, and they knew little of mine. But that little bit was valuable. Shared humanity, no matter how small, is important.

Names are an opening to generosity.

Rarely did Keith or Janice ask me for money or even food. The need was there, but somehow my remembering their name and taking a few minutes from the day to acknowledge their presence was a gift enough.

But I gave anyways. Sometimes at the farmers market, I’d get Janice the best apple I could find. Other days, I’d put a dollar in her tattered coffee cup.

One time I got Keith some hot dogs from the nearby grocery store. When I saw him a week later he told me how much he had enjoyed them and how he was making them last. His smile gave away the truth in his words.

They gave to me too – not in money or food, but of themselves. Their smiles and kind words brightened my day. From their hearts they blessed me. I wonder sometimes if I was the one that benefited most from the relationship.

Names are the beginning of dignity.

It would be easy to focus on the differences between Keith and me. I was employed at a well paying job, he wasn’t. I rarely go hungry, yet he was begging for just enough money to eat. But the differences, although significant, took a lesser role than they might have otherwise.

Because of the relationship, because I knew his name, the emphasis moved from what divided us to the value of his humanity. What was good about him took precedence over what we so often associate with the poor. And what was good about me took precedence over my flaws as well. Dignity begins when we choose to see the good in others.

***

I haven’t seen Keith or Janice in a while – their place along my pathways now taken by others. I miss them though. Their smile, their kind hello, and their humanity are a warm memory. Their names still echo in my heart.

Yet part of me is glad not to see them. They deserve so much more than a street corner. Perhaps they moved on and found something better. I hope they did.

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Hello, my name is Curious. What’s yours? I made this photo at Boulders Beach in South Africa.

Imagine for a Moment

A dream in the clouds.

What would the world look like if we truly valued human life?

Peace. Arms are laid down. Harmony and reconciliation spread between brothers. Human life is too valuable to bear combat against. The casualties of war are too costly to even consider.

Dignity. The poor are lifted up. Their talents are unleashed into the world. They receive the dignity so deeply deserved by their humanity. And we are better for it.

Hope. In the face of pain and suffering, not all is lost. Belief in a future greater than the present pushes and encourages. So we build and press on.

Love. Brother to brother, sister to sister, acts of generosity flower. Rivers deep with gifts of humanity flow between us all.

Joy. Laughter fills the earth. Its sound replaces the noise of busy lives. Life fills all things.

Perhaps this dream is but imagination. Maybe it is too unreasonable. So why bother?

But then again, ending legalized slavery in the United States was unreasonable. Overcoming years of oppression and structured apartheid in South Africa was unreasonable. Extending love to hundreds of poor children in India was unreasonable. Toppling a dictator who had ruled for decades was unreasonable.

Being reasonable is overrated.

For what if what we imagined happened? Wouldn’t it be worth it? Even if the dream came only partly true, I believe the answer would still be yes.

So how do we make that dream a reality?

Define your world.

Do we dream of transforming the entire Earth? Yes. But for now, that is beyond our power. What we have instead is a small sphere of influence. Within that world, the dream becomes more possible.

Look for the little things that bring honor to those in your reach. Small acts of generosity, a smile, and a word of encouragement all celebrate the lives of others. Just because your world is small doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference in it. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Expand that world.

You can also do things to expand your sphere of influence. That could involve meeting new people, deepening existing relationships, or reaching out to more people using the Internet, books, or conferences.

This website is one example of this. While there are many people in my life that I seek to value and help, I’m able to reach even more people through my writing here.

Do it with others.

Your sphere has a limit. You also have limited ability to expand that sphere. That’s where others come in.

With the help of other people you can wield influence far beyond what you could do alone. In a group, the actions of individuals don’t add. They multiply.

What about you? What ways do you use your sphere of influence to bring about the world you imagine?

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A dream in the clouds. I made this photo in South Africa.

The Gift of Death

Short-lived but all the more beautiful.

It is one with this gift of freedom that the Children of men dwell only a short space in the world alive, and are not bound to it. – The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

Anguish. Pain. Suffering. Weapons of war rip through one who was once healthy. Disease eats the body. Poison seeps through the blood. Lives are taken. Death comes as the dark of twilight, consistent and cold.

Tears. Sorrow. Mourning. One that was loved is now gone. The one who loved has passed away. Their memory is but a phantom in the place where they once stood beside us. Lives are broken. Death comes as the robber in the night, without warning and unstoppable.

Ending. Shattered. Final. Their great works shall be left undone. Dreams come to an end. Carefully wrought plans come unraveled. Lives are stopped. Death comes as the thunderstorm, halting the day’s work.

This is the context that colors our lives. It is the lens we see through. And though it is often filled with pain and suffering, the perspective death brings enriches our lives. It is, as J.R.R. Tolkien put it, the gift of men.

Rich. Sweet. Beautiful. Death makes our time scarce. But that makes it valuable. Each moment is worth treasuring. Every relationship deserves cherishing. Life is worth celebrating.

We forget this sometimes. In the rush of our lives, in the blur of doing, the end gets forgetten. Life loses its magic. But when death walks so near that we can see his black robes, we remember.

For all the reputation and chaos of Kenyan roads, the closest I’ve come to death has been in the United States. One day, while walking down a sidewalk near home, a car flashed out of the alley. Two steps further, a few heartbeats, one less pause to look at my lovely wife, and my life would be drastically different today – or maybe not at all.

I went on with my day, but it felt distinct somehow. Little things were more significant. Each smile was extra special. In the light it all being nearly gone, life was worth more.

Limited. Useful. Important. You can only do so much, so why not do something worthwhile? Why not create something that will last? Time is short, but you still have it.

You have unmatchable talents.
You can be the best in the world in some way.
You can give gifts that cannot be repayed.
You can create something worth remembering.

I hope you do something with all that you’ve been given. You have an incredible opportunity. You are alive.

Others. Community. Friendship. That something is other people. It is the lives we touch, even if they only be a few. Acts of kindness and gifts of abundance trickle through the streams of history, multiplying into a great river.

Helping other people is an investment that lasts. True, those people will eventually pass away. But the legacy of your generosity, the memory of your friendship, the stories of your wisdom will live on, echoing through the generations.

Invest in relationships. Build people up. Make other people matter.

***

Someday death will indeed come. With it will be pain and sorrow and works left undone. When it does arrive, my hope is not just that people will remember you – they will – but that your life will be worth remembering. I’m confident you will make it so.

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Short-lived but all the more beautiful. I made this photo at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids.

In the Memory of Life

Crown of Hope

Sometimes, hope fades as the fleeting rays of twilight. Sometimes, the world strikes you with shattering rage. Sometimes, you wish you could simply fade away into the sands of time. In those times, you find out what really matters.

Everything had been going to plan. I had a job I enjoyed, a community I valued, and a wife I loved. Life was good.

Wise men have said that the only thing constant in life is change. So it was for me. With the breaking of the recession, my project was canceled. I kept my job, but the work wasn’t so interesting.

Much of it involved pressing buttons and entering data into a computer program. The moments of thought and challenge were offset by hours of tedious labor. Work gives so much meaning and self worth, and to have that taken away was a blow.

I was stuck. So I did what everyone tells you to do when you get stuck: go for an MBA. Perhaps it was a means of avoiding taking action. Maybe I was putting off taking responsibility. Those things could have been part of it, but I did not see any other options. I was blind to them. To me, an MBA was the final attempt at reviving my stalled career.

In the span of a few months, I wrote the essays, studied for and took the GMAT, and filed my application to Kellogg School of Management. I was confident my odds for acceptance were good.

Meanwhile, I stayed stuck at work. I was transferred to another project in the company, and due to the way the work was set up, we spent a lot of time idle. But if I just got accepted into the MBA program, I’d have the grounds to request a move to something more interesting.

It is fitting that the day I heard back from Kellogg was October 31. I don’t usually take the Hallows’ Eve darkness seriously, but it was real then. The rejection struck with the force of a freight train. I was a man who had rolled his last dice with everything all in. That roll had come up empty.

You may look at me and say that my hopelessness was irrational. It was. For all the skills and talents at my disposal, it makes no sense for me to despair. But then, people are not rational. I am no exception. All the options that I saw before me had closed.

Amidst the pain, I questioned my very life. Countless times, I would have welcomed death with open arms. Surely it would be easier than living. But I lacked to the courage to bring that death myself. I was too afraid. Or so I thought at the time.

As I look back, I no longer see my hesitation as a matter of weakness. Rather, it came from deep within – a questioning. Memories of something else waged war on my desperation.

I remembered the time I slept in a cave with none but the closest of friends. We had hiked through the afternoon and set up camp at Woodcutter’s Cave – an enclave in the rock above flowing waterfalls. We shared a feast and told stories late into the night. The sound of the falling water set the rhythm as bonds of friendship deepened. The star-filled sky shone with the light of love.

I remembered visiting widows on Sunday afternoons. And though by many standards these men and women had nothing, they were rich beyond belief. They welcomed us with open arms and bestowed on us the honor of their stories. Amidst the injustice of their situation, there was humanity.

I remembered the brothers of my community. Kirk and Darin came to where I was. To my home they visited and offered prayers of comfort. Although my heart refused to believe them, they blessed me.

I remembered the love of a woman. In my hours of stillness and despair, she stood by me. And when I was alone amidst the gloom, she held me. She spoke the words of hope that I was unable to speak for myself.

I remembered life.

It tugged at me. It demanded I be certain of my choice. Death is final. There would never be another chance.

And slowly, life began to win.

Nothing in that transition was swift, but it came nonetheless. As the water breaks through a dam, first at a trickle, then at a stream, then bursting forth, such was the return of hope. And I live.

***

No one wishes hardship upon themselves, but I am grateful for that time. It taught me lessons I could never have learned any other way. Those lessons will stay with me forever.

From my pain and hopelessness, I understood the pain and hopelessness of others. While the situation may be different, I know what it’s like to walk under the shadow. I have witnessed the despair it brings. It compels me to reach out and help those that I can.

In the whirlwind of circumstance, I understood that the power was still mine. I cannot choose what happens, but I can choose to happen. How I respond is up to me.

Out of questioning my very desire to live, I understood the value of life. What a gift we have been given. What a tremendous opportunity we have. Life is priceless. It’s worth fighting for.

But most of all, I understood that life is more than just breathing. Life is about being active. Life is about making a difference. Life is about love. Life is about joy. Life is about other people. Life is about shaking the earth with everything you’ve got.

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Crown of Hope. I made this photo near Lokichogio, Kenya.

The Humanity of Hospitality

It's not the house that matters, but the people.

“Karibuni. Karibuni. Come in.” Our group – seven students and one teacher – files through the low doorway. The host, an elderly widow who we call “Mama”, greets us with a smile.

We are here to visit. For several months now a group of us have been getting together with the widows in the surrounding community. Lacking family, many of these men and women live alone. Time and attention are gifts of great worth.

The house is small and plain. Only a kitchen and narrow bedroom branch out from the now full living room. Last month’s newspaper covers walls of mud and stick. Sheets of tin provide both the ceiling and the roof. But though the house is small, there is much room.

There is space for conversation. Close quarters increase intimacy. Food and chai add warmth to our words. The music of the rain on the tin roof beats in rhythm to our fellowship – its song a sweet echo of our shared humanity.

There is space for connection. In the exchanging of our stories, bonds of trust and understanding take hold. The celebration lifts up the dignity of the owners. Differences of race, economic status, and education fade away like the print of the yellowed newspaper on the walls.

There is space for blessing. Although we came with an attitude of a giver, it is us that receive. Mama blesses us. She serves us food out of her poverty. To such unmatchable generosity, all we can do is draw closer. She gives us her story, enriching our stories in the process. Above all, she gives us joy. Her smile is contagious.

***

I now have the opportunity to show a similar hospitality. On many occasion, guests dine at our table. There is abundance. For a recent dinner with two friends, my wife prepared a feast. It was so much so that it could have fed the four of us three times over. The bounty of food celebrated life’s generosity. Sharing food is sharing life.

Over a cup of tea, we fellowship. Sitting on chairs and cushions, we exchange stories. And though I am the giver this time, I am still the one that receives.

For guests grant the gift of deepened relationships. In inviting someone into your home, you invite them into your life. They are allowed a window into who you are. And in that openness, they share more of themselves than they might otherwise. Relationships grow stronger.

Burdens are lifted. Some worries may be light or seemingly insignificant, but sharing them brings relief nonetheless. Sometimes the concerns are of pain and suffering, and telling them produces peace. But most often, it is a freedom from your weaknesses that brings the greatest joy. In the openness of your home, another sees your imperfections and still thinks of you highly.

***

Hospitality is a manifestation of humanity. Life fills it. Love overflows. Joy abounds. May your lives and homes ever echo the Tanzanian proverb, “There is always room for the people you love, even if the house is crowded.”

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It’s not the house that matters, but the people. I made this photo on the train to Mombasa, Kenya.

A Journey of Friendship

Go on up to the mountain.

Pounding. Foot strikes earth – again, and again. Red dust stirs from its slumber with each impact. Wind rushes by – howling through the deep cuts in the rock. Step by step, railroad ties fade behind me. Countless more are still ahead as I continue my decent into the Great Rift Valley. Mt Longonot looms in the distance.

Amidst the energy, my breathing rhymes with the pounding of my footfalls. Determined, I run. Focused, I move forward.

In my company are friends. Together we set out to run the twenty kilometers down to Mt. Longonot, a dormant volcano in the Great Rift Valley. I had trained with them for several months before, running together along dusty roads and forest paths. Today shall reveal our preparation.

Don’t let the notion that most of the run is downhill deceive you, it is hard. It’s twice the distance I have ever done before. And all that is gained by the downhill is lost as the grade slopes upward toward the mountain for the final four kilometers. The support of my companions is most welcome.

Sometimes we distract each other. With a joke or story, the monotony of the unending railway is broken. For a moment, laughter brings amnesia to the burning of our legs.

When we feel like stopping, when our bodies beg surrender, we hold one another up.
“You can do it.”
“Push on, friend.”
“You’re more than half-way.”
“Hey look, there’s a lion behind you.”

The final four kilometers begins. My last strength kicks in, and I fly. Or at least, that’s what it feels like. The reality is that my pace is probably closer to that of the race’s beginning.

The end comes into view.

One hundred meters…
Fifty meters…
Ten meters…

Rarely does the destination feel so sweet. I have defeated myself. The smile that eluded me for much of the prior two hours sneaks to my face.

But as much as I rejoice in reaching the end, that’s not the memory that sticks. I remember the look of those who came after me as they crossed that line. It is in them that I take my happiness. My accomplishment gives me pride, but doing it in and with the company of friends gives me joy.

***

A host of stars canvas the sky – each a tiny soldier against the blackness. Dodging between scattered clouds, the moon dares cast its reflected glory upon us. Yet again the railway ties fade into the distant past. The pace is slow, relaxed, and steady. Mt Longonot looms in the distance.

Somebody in our dorm had the bright idea of hiking throughout the night and climbing the mountain at morning’s first rays. Not really thinking about it, we all agreed. It turned out to be brilliant.

We walk the star-lit railway – a steady march to the mountain ahead. The stillness breaks only once to the roar of a passing freight train.

The journey is not without incident.

There is laughter and surprise. With eyes adjusted to starlight, a certain joker in our number ambushes us with the flash of a camera. Our dazed faces are to remain frozen in film forever.

There is a chai and coffee break. Over a haphazard fire, someone brews, or attempts to brew, warm beverages to stave off the chilly air. I am saved from the bitterness of that so-called chai by the best orange I have ever tasted. Adversity has a way of making things sweeter.

There is the race up the mountain. Having been made to wait till 6:00 AM to enter the Mt. Longonot National Reserve – apparently the buffalo go away at that time – we take off at full speed. Shoes slip on the loose gravel. Tired legs unleash their last reserves. We race the rising sun.

Victory. As brothers, we stand shoulder to shoulder as the sun’s first rays pierce the clouds. Newly sworn members of the “Sunrise Club”, we bask in the beauty.

As with the run, the destination is sweet. We accomplished what we set out to do. But the journey was even sweeter. Its memory will live for many years to come.

Still, that is not the whole story. It is fellowship of brothers that made it all worthwhile. Doing such a trip alone would have been cause for misery. In the midst of the beauty, in the heart of the fun, in the joy of the achievement, is friendship. That is the reason for everything.

You will always travel. Some journeys will be difficult, and some shall be easy. Some will have a clear ending, and others will seem to last for a lifetime. Some will bring victory, and some will bear defeat. But as you wander, I hope you will remember at least one thing:

It is not about the destination, nor is it even about the journey. It’s about the friends you take with you.

***

Then again, sometimes the journey is not necessary. Sometimes, you just sit in the silence of friendship and watch the mountain from afar. You smile as it erupts in the sunset’s fire.

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Go on up to the mountain. I made this photo of Mt. Longonot from Rift Valley Academy in Kijabe, Kenya.