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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Won Friends and Influenced People

It really is remarkable how many people we meet in the course of our lives. With online social networking continually gaining ground, I suppose it's also remarkable how many people we've met without ever actually meeting. I always wonder what people take away from those meetings. How much impact does a gesture of kindness or a word of encouragement have?

I've been a busy chocolatier, working on making new contacts, and finding influence and encouragement in places I've never been but can't wait to visit again. It's made me think about the people who've influenced my life the most, and how grateful I am that they did. There have been a lot of incredibly important people who've helped me become who I am, and who've allowed me to become a more authentic version of myself. But there were two who taught me to push past my self-imposed limits.

In the fall of 1999, I was a senior in high school. Our school was hosting the state student council convention, and my family hosted two delegates from another school. One of those delegates was a boy named Justin. Part of the duties of being a host family involved driving our guests around to the various activities. it was during these drives that Justin made his impact. He was very funny, and I spent most of those drives trying to concentrate on the road and not veer off into the side ditch from laughing. He'd also sing as loud as he could to whatever CD I had in the car. It's important for me to note that I was still very shy, quiet, and reserved. While I'd belt out songs in the safety of the solitude of my trusty 4runner, I'd clam up as soon as another person was with me. I don't recall when he called me out on my silence, the convention wasn't that long, but he convinced me to sing in the car with him. It was a seemingly small step outside of my comfort zone, but the lesson was that sometimes you have to jump before you know the net is below. Unfortunately, Justin was hit by a car and killed while crossing a campus street a few years later. I never saw him after that weekend, but I'll never forget him.

A few years after learning how to sing out loud in a car with strangers, I learned another huge life lesson. My second cousin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2002. She taught art in the local public school system for her entire career. When she found out about the cancer, she'd planned to teach one more year of school before retiring and enjoying herself. She was picking out new fixtures and appliances for her kitchen - something she'd never been able to do before, because she sacrificed her wants for those of her family. Pancreatic cancer is quick and deadly, it was never a fair fight. I learned two things from the time I spent with her, and there isn't a day when I don't consider them. First - what you put out is truly what you get back. She spent her life caring for and teaching children about art and being creative. No one was kinder. And that kindness reflected in the number of people who came to mourn her passing - people who passed through her life as children, people who knew her in the community. Second- don't put off what would be better done today. Some of the most important lessons have been reduced to clichés, but they deserve a second look - I'll always strive to get as much out of the time I have as possible. When I think of all the things I want to accomplish, and all of the people I want to help, I think of all of the things that she'll miss, and all of the people who won't have the benefit of knowing her.

More than anything, I wish these episodes from my life didn't end with a loss. The world needs more people who bring out the good in everyone they meet. I know I hope I can bring a fraction of that feeling to the people I encounter every day.

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