I’ve often thought about writing a story in which the main character thinks he leads an ordinary life, but unbeknownst to him he plays an extraordinary role in the lives of others.
My fascination for this story comes from my own interest in the role that purpose plays in our lives. Do we have a purpose? One role that we are born to play and for which we must spend decades searching?
I recently read the book Living a Life that Matters by Rabbi Harold Kushner. In this book, Kushner discuss several values that we should strive to live by, such as integrity, justice, and serving others. He uses stories from the Bible, as well as experiences from his own time as a rabbi. I really enjoyed the book.
As much as I enjoyed the entire book, I thought Rabbi Kushner buried the key message more than three-quarters of the way through it. In chapter Seven, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Kushner writes about the role that people play in each other’s lives. Kushner includes the example of Joseph, the biblical son of Jacob who is sold into slavery by his brothers and becomes an important minister to the Pharaoh in Egypt.
At the beginning of the story, Joseph goes into the field to look for his brothers. They are not where he expects them, and an unknown person points Joseph to his brothers’ location. Kushner continues the story, as it takes Joseph into Egypt where his prediction of famine allows the Egyptians to prepare for the difficult time ahead. Years down the line Joseph reconnects with his family when they come to Egypt looking for food. They are allowed to stay in Egypt, and more Hebrews settle in the country and grow in numbers.
Of course, the story continues for the Hebrews through slavery, freedom, and wandering the desert. A story of a people influenced by one person who hardly receives mention, but whose simple act sets in motion the destiny of a people.
Kushner ponders what might have happened had Joseph not met this man in the field. But Kushner also wonders whether this man, who seemingly played such a minor role in the story, ever knew the tremendous impact he had on the history of a people.
This part of the book got me wondering, as well. How many people’s lives do we positively impact but never know? Just as important, how many people have an impact of our lives but don’t realize it?
As Kushner writes, “Every life touches many other lives, and rare is the person who knows how much of a difference he or she makes . . . But by being good people and doing good things, we can, as members of a community dedicated to goodness, change the world. We can matter.”
This is the key point to the book, and if we embrace it this can be what offers our life purpose and meaning.
If we value doing good and trying to live up to that value everyday, we can feel content knowing that some of our work will have a tremendous impact on others.
Yet Kushner raises an interesting point. We may never know how many lives we’ve changed with a small, seemingly meaningless gesture or comment. But we know how many people have played a significant role in our lives.
If we know people have made a positive impact on our lives, imagine what it could mean to them if we say it. Whether we tell them in the moment or years later can have the same result. Expressing our gratitude will let people know they played an important role in our life, and perhaps even inspire them to do more.
With so much anger and negativity in our society today, people doing small acts of goodness are easily overshadowed by those who say something brash or controversial.
It seems more important now that we recognize those who stay positive and focus on serving others. Imagine if our society was flooded with messages of gratitude instead of the seemingly endless stream of thoughtless and hurtful messages we face everyday.