Maybe you read recently about the vandals who scratched their names into a boulder in Big Bend National Park, defacing in the process an ancient petroglyph that had survived there for over 5,000 years. Apparently such is the irresistible urge of some to let passing strangers know “I was here”— even if their destructive doodles unquestionably leave the world worse for the rest of us.
Contrast this act with those of another hiker I sometimes see on the hills near my home. When he treks along those local trails, he carries two things: a long-armed grabber and a bag that he uses to gather and remove trash left behind by indolent neighbors. It seems like the sort of thing one might do as part of a group service project, right? But this guy comes alone, week after week, quietly doing what he can to make the world a little better.
Which kind of mark would you rather leave for those who come after you?
Every day we encounter untold opportunities to make the straightforward choice between making things a little worse or a little better for everyone else. For instance, do you leave your grocery cart in among the cars or walk the 20 feet necessary to put it away with the others? Do you speed up to close the gap in stop-and-go traffic or make room for that guy who is trying to move into your lane? Do you spend your time on social media arguing your point or spreading good cheer? None of these choices may be particularly consequential in the grand scheme of things, but the accumulation of such choices by millions of people stretched across the weeks and years does have an impact—for better or worse—on the world in which we live.
These are the small and simple things by which great things are brought to pass. Or not.
You’ll find examples all around you. Not five minutes ago—as I was writing that previous sentence—my doorbell rang. There stood a dear friend bearing gifts: a dozen beautiful eggs from her backyard chicken coop and a bouquet of flowers for my wife Dana. Why? Just because, as it turns out. Consider how that small and simple act of kindness and generosity sent a burst of light into our home. It was both unexpected and delightful. This is not the first time that friend has appeared on our doorstep with an armful of love. This is, in fact, who she is.
I recently attended the funeral for another woman who had mastered this great art. Everywhere she went, Avie spread love and goodness. Invariably, those she encountered came away feeling better about themselves, as if each one were just about the most important person in her life. She taught her children to love others in this same way. Personally, I found that being around her always—always—made me want to be a better version of myself. One man who visited her during her final days described how, even in that fading state, she found a way to make him feel wonderful. He said that when he left her room he felt a powerful urge to go back and sit quietly in the corner—just to be in her presence and bask in the grace she still radiated.
Imagine being such a woman. Imagine a world filled with millions of people just like her. It’s a lofty, perhaps impossible standard. But I can’t help but consider how much better and brighter my tiny little part of the world would be if I could follow her inspiring example, choosing from moment to moment to find a way to make things just a little bit better for someone else.
That sort of beneficence doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to think about it, work at it, pray for it. But I do find that as I think and work and pray for the kind of effortless goodness she embodied as a sincere disciple of Jesus Christ, I can see myself becoming a little bit better, one small and simple thing at a time. And you know what? I can’t think of a better way to let passing strangers know “I was here.”