Little Deeds, Big Impact

Little Deeds, Big Impact

Some occupations will get you daily thanks for doing a good job. Many more rarely result in expressions of appreciation. Sanitation workers, for instance. Custodians. Government professionals who collect taxes, process unemployment benefits, and so on.

Teachers rarely get a “Thank you” from their students, either. And if they do, it may be years later. It’s hard to stay positive, to believe you’re accomplishing something important when it’s not acknowledged by the very people on whom you focus your professional passion.

But I’m here to tell you that your influence spreads like ripples in a pond when skipping stones. Whether it’s positive or negative. Whether it’s part of your job or a kindness to a stranger. It may be something truly magnanimous or seemingly insignificant. And it may make a difference in ways you’d never imagine. Let me give you some random (and in no way equal) real-life examples.

The first is a story about Fred. Fred came into our family by marriage to a cousin more than forty years ago. In all that time, I’d never met him. But I heard a lot about him over the years from my mom. She’d heard about him from her sister, his mother-in-law. Sometimes, she was in his presence and picked up a bit of his philosophy in person. A long time ago, she shared a tidbit with me. Fred held a strong position on the use of brand names as generic, she said. You know, the way people used to refer to all refrigerators as Frigidaires. Unless you’re of a certain age, you may not remember that example, but what about Kleenex for tissue?

It’s a real marketing coup when a brand becomes so iconic that it becomes part of the lexicon—you want a cola type soda and without thinking you ask  for a Coke, you’ll get a Coke instead of a Pepsi or an RC.

It’s not so great, though, if you’re a small business owner like Fred was. It’s hard enough to break into the public’s attention without having a built-in bias all because some multi-national corporation managed to hire a particularly clever PR person. Small businesses need a fair shot. So Fred thought people should say “tissue” or “cola” or “refrigerator.” Period.

Like I said, I’d never met the guy, but I took that lesson to heart. It made sense to me. Overnight, I changed my vocabulary. Never again did I use the word Kleenex unless I was talking specifically about that brand of tissue. I began asking  for “diet soda” in restaurants, which caused me no end of grief. Almost inevitably, my request got this response from the waitstaff: “Is diet Coke (or whatever brand they happened to sell) okay?” They just didn’t get it. But I persisted. When I had business lunches with colleagues, they learned to anticipate the scene and started chuckling at me before the word cola was out of my mouth. They thought I should just give up and go with the flow.

I finally met Fred. Thought I’d tell him how much he’d influenced me even though we’d never before laid eyes on each other. His response was a surprised, “I said that?”. It took his wife, her mother, and my mother simultaneously exclaiming things like, “You sure did,” or “Yes, there was a time . . . ”.

I thought it was hilarious. Decades ago, Fred expressed an opinion. Over the years, his memory of that principle dimmed to the point of nothingness. But someone—me—heard the message loud and clear (even though second-hand). And I not only put it into practice but passed on the sentiment with a kind of missionary zeal.

* * *

Kirk is a friend from way back in college days. After graduation, our families lived in the same town and socialized regularly. Then his family moved to another state. Fate brought us together sporadically and rarely after that. About five years ago, our paths crossed again. It had been more than thirty years since we’d last spent time together. Kirk told the Gnome and me that our names had come up in a sermon he’d recently preached. It had something to do with what he remembered as all our furniture-building back when we were newlyweds—the creativity, necessity mothering invention, that sort of thing.

The Gnome and I looked at each other in bewilderment. We’d sold weaving and macramé items at craft fairs and street festivals for a time in those days, but furniture-building? We were stumped. As we drove home, we puzzled over the discrepancy between Kirk’s memory and ours. Finally, we remembered that when we’d lived in a small World War II-era apartment with one lilliputian closet, we’d built a wardrobe of plywood with pine molding. We painted it a memorable aqua and yellow—it was psychedelic 1969, after all.

That must have been what Kirk remembered. But in his imagination, our one-time building experience had mushroomed. So much so that our “ingenuity” became the substance of a lesson used in a sermon more than four decades later.

* * *

Many years before either of these events, a different kind of moment occurred. I must have been in my early teens the day Mrs. Truluck, a volunteer youth leader in our church, stopped me in the aisle after one Sunday service to compliment me on something she had observed. I don’t remember what exactly, maybe for sitting next to another girl who might otherwise have been ignored. Whatever it was, I didn’t think it was a big deal. However, Mrs. Truluck taking about sixty seconds to tell me she’d noticed was a very big deal. A big deal that’s stayed with me for close to sixty years now.

Mrs. Truluck no doubt knew the importance of offering a pat of congratulations or a word of encouragement to young people. But I’ll bet she fairly quickly forgot that particular exchange. I never did. I learned two important lessons that day. One, that people notice what you do, even things that seem insignificant. I also learned how far a thoughtful comment can go. For the decades since that Sunday afternoon, I’ve tried to make it a point to let people know when I notice the nice things they do.

So, to all the Mrs. Trulucks out there, thank you—you make a difference.

And so do you.  

By Ashashyou (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

On Their Own—Sort of

The other morning, the Gnome and I were breakfasting at our favorite 24-hour restaurant chain. It’s the perfect place to pick up stories. It’s also a popular spot with the college crowd, partly because of its proximity to off-campus housing and its quick and reasonably priced fare.

On this particular morning we found ourselves in a booth just behind a group of college-age young men, five of them crammed around a table. We couldn’t help but eavesdrop on their spirited conversation. Nearly every sentence began with something like, “One time my dad . . . ,” or “When my dad and I . . . ,” or “My dad told me . . . ,” and so on. I didn’t hear these comments as some sort of my-dad’s-stronger-than-your-dad schoolyard oneupmanship, but more of a this-is-my-experience kind of sharing among peers.

After breakfast, we ran an errand at the nearby big box store, another popular hangout with the college crowd. Walking to the store from the parking lot, we overheard another pair of student types. This time it was, “My mom . . .”.

I was utterly fascinated. Not so much by the stories themselves as by their underlying significance. Here are all these kids, off on their own for probably the first time. Semi-independent. Feeling their oats. Maybe sowing a few wild ones, too. But what’s the nexus of their conversations? Their parents. They are still tethered. Their denials may be vociferous, especially to said parents, but the bond remains strong. I’m betting the young folks we overheard didn’t realize how parent-centered their conversations were.

Meanwhile, I imagine, the parents may have been mourning the loss of their fledglings. Or maybe they were feeling their own oats for the first time after a couple of decades of child-rearing. I’m almost certain, though, that they had no idea their children were putting them front and center in their relationships with their peers. In the parents’ wildest dreams, they probably never pictured their kids spending their early days of freedom sharing a piece of maternal advice or reminiscing with their friends about a fishing trip with Dad. Talking about watching maple syrup production with their folks.Retelling Mom’s stories of her own college years. Whatever.To moms and dads everywhere, know that your influence is strong. If you’re the parent of a newly-minted adult, don’t imagine for a minute that you’re not still an almost constant traveler in your son’s or daughter’s mind. Your kids may forget to call, but they are thinking of you. They are talking about you (hopefully in a good way). They are remembering your lessons. You’re still important to them, central to their lives.

And if you’re a grown child of parents who are still living, maybe you’d like to give them a call about now and tell them so. Give them a verbal hug. It’ll mean a lot. More than you can imagine—at least until you become the parent of a grown child yourself.