The old man and I sat facing each other in the light of the morning sun.
Steam danced over the rims of our teacups, swirling through sunbeams and bouncing off the round wooden table between us.
I was young, not much over thirty. He was decades older, just inching into his seventies. We talked together as unequal colleagues, he the mentor and distinguished professor, I the apprentice and developing leader. He had hired me to help run his organization, an idealistic training center for young activists.
Lounging in the wicker chairs of our rented office, we sat reviewing the galley proof of the professor’s latest book, mining its chapters for talking points and teaching opportunities.
It was a beautiful book. Ripe with wisdom gathered from a lifetime of academic study and lived experience, seeded with stories that eloquently captured its points, woven throughout with threads of practicality and purpose.
I saw it as an impeccably written guidebook from a master in its field. It was, in my mind, a gift to the world.
But the old man that day was not seeing the gift.
As he fingered through the pages of his masterwork, his hands slowed. A pained expression overtook his face. The sun creased shadows into his furrowed brow.
He reached across the table and took my hand, a shaft of light striking his silver wristwatch as his blue eyes welled with tears.
“My dear,” he said, “I fear that I have failed.”
I sat up, fully present.
“Failed?” I shook my head slightly. “How so?”
Shoulders heaving, he pulled in a long and careful breath, as if drawing together the edges of a tender wound.
“I have failed,” he said, “because my life has been all words, and no action.”
“I’ve written a great many words in my life,” he continued, “and spoken many more than that. I’ve lectured enough words to fill a great library with thoughts and ideas.”
“I believed, when I began this journey many decades ago, that I could change the world with a sharp intellect and a pointed pen. But now I’m nearing the last chapter of my life, and I can’t say that with all my words I’ve changed anything at all. In fact, I’m not sure my presence in the world has truly helped anyone.”
“My life, I fear, has been a waste. And I’m running out of time.”
He squeezed my hand tightly, and a tear whispered over the wrinkled curve of his cheek.
I opened my lips to protest, but no words came out.
This articulate gentleman, whose intellect had paved road maps for social change, whose words wove disparate spiritual and historical sources into tapestries of modern relevance. I knew he had changed lives with his words—he had changed mine. How could he think that he had failed?
As I struggled to pull my thoughts together I was swept back in time, from my spot at the sunlit table to a memory etched upon the hourglass of my own life story.
I got the call on the clinic phone. Seven-thirty a.m., first call of the day. On the line was a technician in the lost and found department. She had just arrived to work to find a cat screaming in his cage, distraught, in obvious pain. Could I help?
Of course, I would try.
It was the early shift at the animal shelter where I worked, and I was the morning on-call veterinary technician. I hung up the phone, grabbed my medical pouch and rushed across the parking lot toward the lost and found annex.
Inside the building would be at least one hundred homeless dogs and cats, locked inside barred cages and awaiting their fates. Having been dropped at the shelter by good Samaritans, some of the animals would shortly be reclaimed by relieved owners. Others would be adopted into new homes. The rest would not make it out alive.
I could hear the wild cries of a cat in distress long before I reached the door.
The technician showed me to a corner where a handsome tuxedo cat, white-whiskered with a shining black coat, sat howling to the roof of his metal 2×2 cage. He squatted uncomfortably in his tiny litter box, hind legs shaking with exhaustion. I knew immediately what was wrong.
“Hi baby,” I spoke to him softly as I flipped open the latch on his kennel. “You’re in a bad situation. Let’s see if we can make you feel better.”
I pulled him gently from the cage, litter box and all, and carried him to the examination table.
Placing the box on the scuffed tile floor, I lifted the cat tenderly as flecks of dry litter fell from between his toes.
As I cupped my hand under his belly he let out an exhausted cry, and I felt what I expected: the tight hard ball of his bladder, so full it was about to burst.
His urinary tract was blocked.
The cat desperately needed to release his bladder, but his urethra was blocked by calcium crystals, leaving him unable to urinate. As he struggled to relieve himself the pressure could only increase, causing him tremendous pain.
“Shhh.” I stroked his head. “We’ll take care of you.”
While the kennel tech held the cat securely atop a clean towel, I pulled an extra-large syringe from my pouch and fitted a needle to its tip. I steadied the bladder between my fingers, pierced the needle through the belly wall, and released the plunger.
Red liquid surged into the body of the syringe. Blood. A sign of a severe blockage and a life-threatening condition.
The instant the trapped fluid flooded the syringe, the pressure on the bladder released. I continued to pull and the cat’s weight sunk into the table as his muscles relaxed.
Belly heaving, with his last bit of energy, the turned his golden eyes to look up at me with what I swore was an expression of gratitude. By the time I pulled the needle out seconds later, his head had flopped to one side and he’d passed out from relief.
As I stood over the limp animal, I felt my own cascade of emotion as relief washed over my body. Had this cat not received help today, I thought, he likely would have been dead by tomorrow. His bladder would have ruptured inside his body, flooding his system with deadly toxins and poisoning him from the inside out. I had almost certainly saved his life.
But it was the next thought that came to my mind that would be a gift to last a lifetime:
No matter what becomes of me, I will never think my life has been a waste.
Thank God for that moment with the cat.
Ever since that day, my life has been graced with a buffer, an inoculation against any fear or dismay that may have subsequently arisen in my heart at the prospect that my life would not matter.
Why am I so grateful for this? Because I am also a person of many words. And words don’t always feel like they matter.
On the one hand, we humans are made for words. We are storytellers. With our large brains and penchant for language, we have the ability to pass knowledge from one generation to the next, to reveal the wild landscapes of our inner worlds, to teach and learn life’s lessons, via nothing more than sound expressed through our lips.
But we are not made only for words.
We would not survive if we talked about escaping danger, yet never ran from it. We would die of thirst if we told stories about water, but never drank. The hand must pluck the berry from its stem before it can be eaten. The bread must be made and the shelter maintained, the harvest preserved for the winter, or there is no life to speak of in the spring.
We thoughtful and lively humans are clearly built for both words and actions, comingling in an ancient dance of mutual support and balance.
In bygone times, this was better understood. In ancient Greece, for example, poets and philosophers were revered in equal measure to athletes and statesmen. In indigenous cultures even today, storytelling elders are respected for their words and their wisdom, as much as young warriors are beloved for their strength and bravery.
The myths and stories of all our native cultures are themselves manifestations of this balance. They are most often stories of action, yet only because they were carried forth on timeless threads of language may we drink of their wisdom today.
There is necessity for both word and action in our world. Indeed, each of us is a unique combination of both elements, and our calling is to live into them, as a gift to our own time and place.
But our modern culture, with its definition of success measured upon the well-oiled machines of productivity and progress, has neglected this balance. We have forgotten, in our rush to achieve, build, and expand, that strength needs wisdom and action needs words.
Thus the most skilled wordsmiths of our day are often judged relevant only according to the number of books they are able to sell in the marketplace. Our greatest thinkers, often relegated to eking out livings in the halls of academia, are required to crank out assembly lines of papers in peer-reviewed journals to prove themselves relevant.
Even you and I are admonished not to sit around talking about things, but to “do something with our lives.” Even as activists for balance and harmony, our identity and our value is chained to our ability to be the change. Simply being ourselves is no longer enough.
Maybe that’s why my dear professor friend was afraid that he had failed. His fear might suggest less about him and his words, and more about the false dream of the modern world so many of us are swimming in: that the value of who we are depends on what we do.
The result is that a man may come to the end of a long life of meaningful contribution, and yet believe he has done nothing that matters.
So what to do? How to make our lives matter, if not according to society’s dream, at least to ourselves? Do we trust the ripples of the word, if words are our particular magic? Or do we push ourselves into action?
I think we have to do both.
The wonderful thing about actions is that we receive feedback immediately when we do something meaningful for ourselves or another being. The ripples we send into the world through our actions return to us like boomerangs. For better or for worse, we reap what we sow.
To be sure, words can hit their mark and bounce back like boomerangs too. Our terms of endearment, affirmations of support and understanding, compliments offered, shared expressions of grief, grand pronouncements and great works of written art, create our lives as we speak them. Expressions of gratitude and thanks can powerfully transform a moment, a day, and a life.
Our words can even mirror to another person the value they give to the world, perhaps allowing them to be more secure in knowing that they, too, have made a difference.
So if someone has made a difference in your life, tell them.
If they have made things better for you, thank them.
If you have witnessed them say or do something that matters, remind them.
Because it is easy to forget.
But there is another powerful play we can make with our words, one that binds words to actions and ripples their combined weight into the world where they can make magic:
We can tell our stories.
Sharing our stories connects us to the social world and acts upon other lives, as the stories of others act upon our own, in a dance of reciprocal meaning. Story telling is meaning making. Stories we share become living memories, breathing our past experience into future flight across space, time, and culture. Through the telling and the receiving, we discover the universal themes that connect us all. We heal, we learn, we remember we are not alone. We remember that we matter.
In fact, that’s what I’m doing here: telling my story.
Because I woke up this morning, and in my half-awake state I started to worry whether anything I have done has mattered, whether my life has been worth anything at all.
And then I remembered that cat.
So I say, embrace the word. Use it, send it far and wide, and wield its power as a tool for connection and transformation. Especially in this rapidly-connected world, where our collective reality ripple-shifts across the planet at an instant’s notice, you never know whose life might be transformed by the gift of your words.
And in the case you ever have the slightest doubt whether your words have struck gold, step outside your door and do a real, tangible, kind act for someone or something else, something beyond yourself, something needed in that very moment and within your power to do. Do something that changes someone’s life, with a big, fat ripple that no one—especially you—can deny.
I expect you will never have to doubt again.
Back at the sunlit table, only moments had passed. I squeezed the old man’s hand in recognition, then turned to reach behind me.
From the threadbare arm of the lounge chair along the wall, I picked up a book I had laid there just that morning, before our meeting. It was my personal copy of another book this very professor had authored, a book written early in his career.
Dog-eared and underlined, creased and stained, the book was an unsightly mess, marked up along its side with colorful tabs and bookmarks I’d inserted among the pages to remind myself of what mattered.
I plopped the book on the table, sunlight illuminating the pockmarks in the wrinkled cover, and nodded my head to its bulky form like welcoming an old friend.
I had found the book years before, on a shelf in a used bookstore. Since then it had directed my attention, led me to new discoveries and relationships, and impacted my thoughts and actions for years. It had, in fact, through meandering twists and adventures, eventually led me to this very moment, seated at the well-worn table of the very professor whose words made it all happen.
“Well, I can’t speak for anyone else,” I said. “But I can say that all those words of yours certainly made a difference to me.”
I rotated the book to face him, turned open the front cover, and displayed handwritten words I had scrawled on the title page with looping letters in blue ball point ink, so many years ago:
“This book changed my life!”
The old man and I locked eyes and smiled. Then in unison, we spoke sound into form upon swirls of sunbeams, in a shared expression of the healing power of the word.
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