"Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around." So wrote Leo Buscaglia.
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Years ago Rich, a friend of mine, while snowmobiling on the Columbia Glacier with friends, ran into a deep crevasse. All three were injured, my friend the worst of all: his companion's snowmobile landed on him causing severe internal injuries. When the rescuer, suspended on a rope from a hovering helicopter, descended into the crevasse, he managed the lifting out of the two less injured snowmobilers. The helicopter apparently could handle only the two, and it was clear that Rich was going to die. Rich says that he had made peace with dying. He said that his view was so beautiful surrounded by the glacial blue. The rescuer, at considerable risk of his own life, opted to stay with Rich. He knelt beside Rich and touched his shoulder. Rich says that when that man touched his shoulder, Rich knew he was going to live. His spinal cord was irreparably crushed at about the level of his diaphragm. Rich not only survived; he has indeed lived.
I was in the Seattle-Tacoma airport on the way home from a mission trip to Mississippi to repair Katrina-damaged houses when I called my friend and colleague Tom Dahl, who had organized the trip, to see how things were going. Tom and some others were still in Mississippi for a second week of work. To my puzzlement, Don Gotschall answered Tom's phone and said that they had a situation and handed the phone to Steven Dahl, Tom's son. Steven told me that Tom had fallen and was not expected to live. I immediately arranged a flight back to Mississippi.
Knowing that I might look as distressed as I felt, I told the gate agent what had happened and that they didn't need to be alarmed or concerned about my looking so distressed. I have blessedly rarely felt as alone and lonely as I did on that flight. The gate agent must have told the flight attendant about me because she came close and touched my hand and said that she was sorry about my friend and what I was going through. She continued to make gentle eye contact throughout the flight. Her kindness didn't turn my life around, but it felt life-giving at the time.
Similarly when I got off the plane at Mobile, I remember running to the reception area. I didn't know at the time why I was running. Now I know that I wanted to be with those who had come to meet me.
A few weeks ago I was next in line at a customer service desk while the service person was on the phone with someone who apparently was angry and abusive. When the service person hung up the phone, she dropped her head a bit, and I said, "Take a moment and take a deep breath." She looked up with grateful and moist eyes and said, "I know."
I have another friend, whose behavior I don't emulate, who every morning writes a note of appreciation to someone. The subject of most of her notes is something small and, by some measures, insignificant.
My life has been sustained and enriched mostly by the kinds of things that Leo Buscaglia referred to. I'm not very good at those things, but maybe by the very nature of them, we don't need to be good at them. We just could make this a far better world by doing them - at the checkout line, the stop light, the school hallway, the breakfast table. It might be like planting a seed. We may never see the fruit or the flower, but maybe, just maybe, someone's life will be a bit better.
Dan Wanders is the pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church.