Here’s something I notice about retirees, both present and near-future ones: we have lots of conversations about making a difference in the world. I see a number of reasons for that. I would assert that (don’t ask me for evidence), being a little older, one tends to have a broader view of the world. Another is that one has a greater abundance of disposable time, and, sometimes, income. There is also the fact that one can hear the loud ticking of clock and is aware that the end of days approacheth. Mostly the world has been good to us and so we think, and talk, about sharing the good fortune.
For example, let me tell you about a recent conversation with Robert, a good friend whom I have known over many years. He is in outplacement, which means he trains, coaches and advises people who have lost their jobs. I have to tell you, Robert is brilliant at this. He makes a huge difference to people, not only in helping them find new work but in rediscovering their self-esteem and desire to engage in the world. He deflects suicide; he restores vision. Over the years, hundreds, probably thousands, of people have been deeply touched by his wise and empathetic presence—and have gone on to live productive lives.
So, over breakfast on the deck the other day, in the middle of a conversation about the struggles of many of the African countries, I was aghast to hear him sigh deeply and say he often feels he should be doing something meaningful with his life. Dear God, if Robert isn’t doing meaningful work, there’s no hope for the rest of us. But his picture, like that of many of us, is of working in Africa or Afghanistan right at the wellspring of human misery.
And speaking of Afghanistan: while in Canada recently, I had coffee with good friends who can always be counted on for a lively discussion. The conversation dipped into contribution and volunteering at one point, and I learned from them about a favourite charity, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. Interestingly, the CW4WAfghan website says, “The real enemy in Afghanistan is illiteracy” (and this from someone who is the Deputy Commander of Canadian and NATO Forces). At any rate, we talked about literacy, about volunteering, about the third world.
“We live in a bubble,” my friend said emphatically. As the conversation rushed on from there, I didn’t get to ask her exactly what she meant. So I’m left to speculate.
Maybe she meant: Here in the west, we live an isolated existence that we think is safe and perpetual. It’s not. We are seriously outnumbered by the residents of a hungry, angry world out there that wants what we have and is quite capable of reaching across mountains and oceans to pierce our bubble. Or maybe she meant: we just don’t get it. We really don’t know, or even care, what the Afghani women are up against, or the Syrians, or the Ukrainians, or the North Koreans. We live in our colourful, rounded, soft, springy world, blissfully buoyed by benign currents. Either way: our bubble means trouble.
Also in this vein, there was a visit with my American cousin, who recently visited his son who works with the Peace Corps in Togo. My cousin loved the experience, but was daunted by the gap between his worldview and that of so many Togans who live in colourless surroundings, with garbage piled high in the streets and a few-cents-a-day existence. He is proud of his son for the two years he’s put in there, but hopes he will come back soon.
Closer to home, a small voice asks: What about me? What am I doing for the world? Well!—I believe in the power of ideas and communication for transforming life, so I write this blog. I believe in what a well-targeted dollar can do, so we support a little guy who lives in an orphanage in a far-away land. I believe in the almost-unbearable beauty of gardens, so I do a bit of weeding and planting for friends.
And then there’s the tiny public school near where we live on Mitchells Island. Like the Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, I believe in literacy, so I’ve just begun listening to the littlies reading. It’s a compelling bit of volunteer work. The first kindergartener rushed out to where I sit and shouted out each of the flashcard words in triumph. Last out was a little guy with a shy smile, long curls and eyes the size of watermelons that will probably serve him in good stead for much of his life. But in the realm of reading, he hadn’t a clue. The month and a half he’s spent in kindy hasn’t yet given him the complicated concepts of words and letters and sounds and meaning. I’ve been puzzling ever since about what the entry point into that gorgeous head might be that will enable him to grasp the idea of reading and give him access to the world of words as quickly as possible.
In summary, the issue of contribution is complex. A quote I’ve loved ever since it first showed up on Rick’s desktop a few years ago is by Howard Thurman, an African American author, philosopher, educator and civil rights leader who deeply influenced Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Says Thurman: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Surely that applies to everyone from wide-eyed kindergarteners to contemplative retirees; from Peace Corps volunteers to gardeners. It’s never too late to look for what will make us come alive, and share that with the world.
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Postscript: This week I learned a new word: crowdsourcing. Apparently thousands of people signed up early on when Flight MH370 went missing, volunteering to sit at their computers and scan satellite photos of vast expanses of empty ocean in the hope of finding something that will indicate the plane’s location. Truly, people get up to remarkable stuff.