A man who works as a bartender at a restaurant located one block from a major hospital offers this insight: “In my thirty years of working here, I’ve met many people who have just received bad news. If you see someone in distress, don’t hesitate to talk to them. Once you’ve heard their story, sometimes all you have to say is, ‘I’ll be thinking of you.’ You and your words are more powerful than you think.”
That man offers this clear reminder: one person has the power to make a difference. The truth is that each one of us can have an impact on another life. Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, wisely says: “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.”
Here are six ways to exercise the power of one.
• Write a letter. “The word that is heard perishes, but the letter that is written remains” is the wisdom of an ancient proverb. Has someone provided you with exceptionally good service? Write a note of appreciation to them or to their boss. Has someone showered you with an unusual kindness? Write a note of thanks. Has someone come to your aid when you were in dire need of help? Write a note acknowledging them for their assistance.
William Stidger and some friends were engaged in an after-dinner conversation about what they had to be thankful for. Stidger told his friends he was grateful for Mrs. Wendt, one of his early childhood teachers who awakened his literary interests and who encouraged him to pursue his writing talent.
“Does this Mrs. Wendt know she made such a contribution to your life?” asked one of his friends.
Stidger admitted: “I’ve never taken the trouble to tell her.”
So the friend suggested he write her. “It would certainly make her happy, if she is alive, and it might make you happier, too. Far too few of us have developed the habit of gratitude.”
That evening Stidger wrote Mrs. Wendt. His letter was forwarded several times before it finally reached her. She wrote him back this note: “My dear Willie: I can’t tell you how much your note meant to me. I am in my eighties, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely and like the last leaf of fall lingering behind. You will be interested to know that I taught school for 50 years and yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received. It came on a blue, cold morning and it cheered me as nothing has in many years.”
• Offer an encouraging word. “A word of encouragement from a teacher to a child can change a life,” says author John C. Maxwell. “A word of encouragement from a spouse can save a marriage. A word of encouragement from a leader can inspire a person to reach her potential.”
When those around you are discouraged, be the one who sees the positive and offers an encouraging word. Some time ago, a wildlife organization offered a $5,000 bounty for every wolf that was captured alive. The magnificent creatures would them be relocated to an area uninhabited by wolves. Two men, Sam and Jed, decided this would be a good way to earn some badly needed cash. They spent several days and nights searching miles of territory looking for wolf packs but didn’t make a single sighting. Exhausted after days of work, they fell asleep late one night around their campfire. Sam heard strange noises causing him to wake up. Leaning upon one elbow, he discovered that he and Jed were surrounded by about 50 growling wolves. Their teeth were bared and their eyes were flaming with hunger.
Gently, he poked Jed with a stick and whispered: “Jed! Wake up! We’re rich!”
• Be an active practitioner of kindness. “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind,” noted writer Henry James.
In a similar tone, author George Saunders recently addressed students at Syracuse University where he spoke about the power of kindness: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human begin was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly, reservedly, mildly.” Then he asked his audience to consider kindness from a more personal perspective: “Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet.”
• Speak positively to everyone. Even if you’re having a bad day, remember to speak and act in positive ways to everyone you encounter. A simple friendly smile, an optimistic word, a cheerful “hello,” an expression of sincere interest in another’s well-being — these are all small, but significant, ways of influencing your family, friends, colleagues and even strangers.
Consider legendary football coach Vince Lombardi as an example. When he came to the Green Bay Packers, he knew the team was discouraged, dispirited and deflated. Yet, when he first met with the team he spoke only positively: “Gentlemen, we are going to have a great football team. We are going to win games. You are going to learn to block. You are going to learn to run. You are going to learn to tackle. You are going to outplay the teams that come against you.” His positive approach and enthusiasm connected immediately with his players.
One player said: “I walked out of that meeting feeling 10 feet tall.” That year the Packers won seven games using most of the same players who had lost ten games the year before. The following year they won a division a title and the third year, the Super Bowl.
• Celebrate successes others don’t yet see. That advice comes from John C. Maxwell in his book, Winning With People:
“Sometimes people make great strides and aren’t even aware of it. Have you ever started to diet or exercise and after a while felt you were struggling, only to have a friend tell you how good you look? Or haven’t you worked on a project and felt discouraged by your progress, but had a friend marvel at what you had accomplished? It is inspiring and makes you want to work that much harder.”
• Give love and acceptance. All beings want to be loved and accepted. You have it within your power to give them what they want. Here’s an example. As an 8-year-old child, Andrea Jaeger displayed remarkable skill for tennis. By 13 she was winning most titles, and at 14 she turned pro. Before long she was at the top competing against the biggest names in the tennis world. As her fame spread, Andrea began making hospital visits to children with life-threatening illnesses. She enjoyed lifting children’s spirits more than lifting tennis trophies and felt she wanted to do that service more than playing tennis.
However, she received tremendous pressure from her father and others to keep playing professional tennis. She continued doing so, but with considerable internal conflict. That ended when she dislocated her right shoulder and abruptly retired. Using her $1.4 million prize money, she moved to Aspen, Colo., and started a charitable foundation helping sick children.
Her family, and especially her father, struggled to comprehend Andrea’s humanitarian and spiritual direction. Along with ministering to children, Andrea became an Episcopal nun and is known as “Sister Andrea” by the children she spends time with. Giving up a lucrative career in sports and endorsements was not easy for her father to understand. The result was an uncomfortable distancing between father and daughter.
After several years being disconnected, her father visited one of Andrea’s camps for children and began to appreciate her efforts. Andrea says she saw her dad cry only twice: when she quit tennis and after spending time at one of her programs in Colorado. Breaking down into tears, he looked at Andrea speaking these words of love and acceptance: “I’m just honored to be your father.”
“I felt like that was the first time I had my dad since I was 14,” Andrea said. Five years later, he was diagnosed with cancer and died from the illness.
So, the next time you find yourself thinking, “Who am I, anyway, to think that I could make a difference?” think again, because you have the power to make a difference. Be mindful of Theodore Roosevelt’s advice: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”