Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Not in Vain

Emily Dickinson
One of my favorite poems was penned by a diminutive New Englander, famous nineteenth-century bard, and distant cousin of mine.* You have probably heard of this poet.

Her name is Emily Dickinson.

Her poem I speak of is called: Not in Vain. It is short, simple, and straightforward, yet deeply moving and powerful at the same time.  

Not in Vain

If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain:

If I can ease one life the aching,

Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again,

I shall not live in vain.

In life, we are sometimes erroneously led to believe that we must accomplish some GRAND thing for our lives to matter in the grand scheme of things. We are, like Oz the Great and Powerful, not content with being a Good man or woman; we want to be a Great One!** 

I am no different.

However, one of the most important lessons I've ever learned in my life is that being good is, in fact, the truest essence of greatness. And it doesn't matter how many (or few) people know about you and your life's work. What matters is that you did your best to be your best and that you mattered in the lives of those you were able to reach and touch.

Emily Dickinson's poem shared above is beautiful, concise, and easy to memorize. It serves as a continual reminder to me that authentic greatness does not necessarily involve fame, fortune, or colossal achievement. But it does always involve GOODNESS, RIGHTNESS, and TRUTH. Therefore, if you (or I) desire to be great, we should focus on doing what is RIGHT, being GOOD, and continually seeking after TRUTH. This quest can be accomplished in seemingly small and insignificant ways as we consistently provide meaningful service to whomever we are privileged to associate with each and every day of our lives.

As Nazi concentration camp survivor, Viktor E. Frankl once wrote in his famous book: Man's Search for Meaning

"Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as a by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it."

Along our various quests to serve others, we should also remember that the most important service we will render will usually not be "out there" in the world on some distant shore, grand stage, or epic scale. More likely, it will be "right here" in our own relationships, homes, communities, schools, and organizations. Indeed, the quantity and quality of service we render within our own inner circle of family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors should ultimately exceed whatever "extracurricular" service we may provide to others in our outer circle of associates, acquaintances, and fellow citizens. 

I have done a lot of work travel in my career. In doing so, I am intrigued by how kind, courteous, and thoughtful almost all people are to me as I come-and-go as a stranger in airports, shuttle buses, hotels, etc. I sometimes wonder how kind, courteous, and thoughtful those same people are to those who are supposedly nearest and dearest to them. We humans are funny that way; we sometimes treat those we care the least about with the most courtesy, deference, and respect, while reserving the worst sides of ourselves for those we purportedly love the most! It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that that approach doesn't make any sense and is bound to make us miserable in the long run.  

No one's life is ever lived in VAIN... as long as that life renders sincere and meaningful service to others. May we all strive to serve a little bit more and a little bit better moving forward in our lives. And may we reserve our very best not for strangers we meet coming-and-going, but for those who are nearest and dearest to us within the walls of our own homes and the corridors of our own communities, schools, churches, and organizations.   


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* Emily Dickinson is my maternal sixth cousin, four times removed
**As quoted by actor James Franco in his role of the Wizard of Oz in Oz the Great and Powerful (Walt Disney Films, 2013). 


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