Sunday, November 27, 2011

Great and Noble Tasks

I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble. -- Helen Keller

I had a lot of heroes when I was growing up, people I read about and admired and dreamed about being just like them, or as like them as possible. I read a lot of books and so met a lot of people who could, and sometimes did, serve as role models in various ways: Joan of Arc, Pocahontas,Sacajawea, guiding , queens Elizabeth I and II, Martha Washington, Anne Frank and Helen Keller. They were strong women in different ways, some making a big splash in the world, some making far-reaching waves by no more than a fingertip touching the surface of the water. None of them had an easy life although some have led very privileged ones, some led very long lives while others lives were tragically short. Still, they all made an impact on my life in some way, as have others. They did great and noble tasks but also small tasks as if they were great and noble.

As a kid, I wanted to be a nurse (until I found I really didn't like dealing with things like bedpans, emesis basins and gore), a writer and a teacher. I loved music and I wanted to sing in a great chorale like the Huddersfield Choral Society or the Roger Wagner Chorale. I liked singing but never really wanted to be a soloist; I loved the multilayer sound of singing in parts and loved singing harmony. I loved playing the piano but it was more for my enjoyment than performance. I told the preacher's kids stories that I made up or wrote and it seemed to amuse them. Most of my writing, though, consisted of a lot of very, very long letters, definitely not the stuff of a best-seller or even worth keeping beyond the time it took to read them. Oh, well.

Now that I'm over threescore and five years, I'm still looking for the great and noble task. I've taught school (briefly-- until I found out I liked teaching adults more than kids), I've worked at a museum, in a bookstore (oh, temptation!), several large construction sites, a construction management home office, Knott's Berry Farm, a short stint in a fencing company, as a temporary worker several times, several jobs at the local newspaper (which I still do), a clerk at an outpatient substance abuse clinic, as a security guard, an editor and transcriptionist for a few autobiographies of other people, and a church secretary (twice). I may have done some small things well, but certainly no great and noble deeds. Co-mentoring a couple of online EfM groups is probably the closest I get to something even remotely great and noble, but then, I'm not dead yet. Where there's life, there's hope -- I hope.

Somehow, I don't feel I'm really cut out for the great and noble. It seems I need to concentrate on doing the small things as if they were great and noble. When you know people are watching, it's often easier to be a little more particular about how a job gets done, but I have found immense joy in a couple of things that I did because I felt they needed to be done and nobody noticed them at all. I may not have done them perfectly, but they did achieve results, and I could feel I accomplished something. I've sung in choirs that pulled off great performances and the high was incredible. I've been part of a large construction management company that brought several huge construction projects in on time and under budget -- and I could say I was part of that team. I've written things that a few people have complimented and for that I feel a little pride, but I remind myself that there were typos in them or I phrased something badly that I could have done better. Still, I can enjoy the fact that someone read and liked the pieces.

I doubt I'll ever go to Africa or Indonesia as a missionary, will become a famous writer of best-sellers, sing in a choir of professional caliber, teach a class in a post-secondary situation, invent the next great invention or discover the cure for the world's greatest killer disease. What i have to learn to do, even at this late date, is to do the small things the best I can do them and to try to find satisfaction in them. A blog post may not seem like much, but if I craft it the best I can with proper grammar (well, except when I need bad grammar for emphasis -- or by accident) and spelling (knowing when to override spell-check), then whether it does a great and noble thing becomes insignificant. A thoughtful subject for theological reflection in my EfM groups may not be as great as donating a million dollars to build a school or water treatment plant in a part of the world where it is sorely needed, but it's the contribution I can make. Being respectful to customers at my job (or very civil to some of the more frothy ones who are complaining) may not be a huge thing, but if I can listen patiently to something I've heard at least 200 times in the last month, or take the edge off an upset customer with a joke or pun, I'll do it and gladly.

I need to focus on those little things. It's my best chance to do something good and noble, if not great.

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