I remember once watching Bill Clinton in the midst of his worst troubles as President being interviewed and asked how he coped with his present stress. His answer really spoke to me. He explained that he “kept score”, meaning that in the midst of his own self-inflicted wounds he was reminding himself how his Presidency was positively affecting the lives of people in his country and around the world. I remembered that. Whenever I feel I am making mistake after mistake and letting people down around me I remember that I still have the opportunity, every day, to make a positive difference in someone’s life.
There are days when I wonder, “has my life really made any difference to anyone, have I used this opportunity to make a positive difference to someone, anyone?” That question comes up, often comes up, and I try to answer honestly. My mind goes back to people and places and circumstances, and I can recall despite my obvious shortcomings that something good came from that encounter. Those impressions and memories are enormously helpful to my state of mind and disposition.
When I am listening to people who are going through one of those “have I really made anything of my life?” moments I try to remind them of the people and situations where their participation did make a difference. And you can see the visible change in the way they are sitting, talking, and their facial expressions. Suddenly the realization that something good has come from their life perks them up and gives them the confidence to carry on and carry forward.
I think we underestimate the ways we make a difference and underestimate how important that existential question is to our lives. What we think we worry about is not always what we are really worried about. People might tell me they are worried about “society” and what is happening to people today, about their aging, about how stressed and busy they are, about their family and their friends. But left out is the unspoken anxiety about the meaning of their lives, what difference they feel their life has made. They really wonder if this experience was meaningful, did they make the most of what they were given, were opportunities wasted or taken for granted. It is less about “success”, that odd way we talk about others in obituaries. Instead it is more about the way we affected the lives of others, that we really did or said something that affected someone’s life and thus gave us a sense of our own agency and gift.
It is important to verbalize these concerns, to talk openly about them and be able to answer them to ourselves. Otherwise these questions haunt us and return to us when we least expect it. They can really get us down. On the other hand when we open up ourselves to these questions and find life-giving answers we leave this dialogue more certain about what really matters and how we are really making a difference.