Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.
Attributed to Mother Theresa
I have disappointed myself.
Thirty years ago, I would have assumed that by now I would be doing great things, making a big difference in the lives of many beings.
I would have been well advanced in my field and a person of consequence.
But life is full of twists and turns and things don’t always go according to plan.
There are obstacles along the way, and maneuvering around them can force you onto a side path. Sometimes that path strays too far from your original purpose and you end up so far away that you cannot make it back.
You may find yourself in a place that’s unfamiliar and unexpected. For me, it was a realization that I will not get to where I thought I was going.
So I cannot make grand decisions to benefit all. But perhaps I can do little things with a kind heart that will benefit someone. I may not change the world, but in a small way with great love I can do my part.
For better or worse, my tendency is to cling to thoughts, expectations, emotions. Letting go is difficult because change brings on uncertainty, and uncertainty doesn’t feel safe.
And yet, if there’s anything that watching the stately Notre-Dame aflame teaches us, it’s that nothing remains untouched by time and happenstance, not even the 850-year-old symbol of a country.
In our lifetimes, the cathedral has been a steady fixture. And yet, if you consider its history, Notre-Dame has undergone many changes. Modifications by French kings, damage during the Huguenot riots and French Revolution. Repurposing, re-consecration, restoration and renovation over the centuries
While it’s romantic to consider Notre-Dame de Paris as a constant through the ages, the reality is that those significant changes have enhanced its character with meaning. And when the unstoppable advance of time transforms the cathedral into rubble, perhaps something even more beautiful will arise from her remains.
I have experienced changes in my own life that I couldn’t have predicted and certainly didn’t want. They have been frightening and even painful, and I increased my suffering by fighting them even after realizing I couldn’t stop them.
But just as there is new growth after a forest fire, with the heat being necessary in some cases to release seeds and allow them to find soil, unpleasant changes in my life have led to new paths. All I have needed to do is let go of the past, accept my new reality and find something even more beautiful there.
As an alumna of one of the universities involved in the recent U.S. college admissions scandal, I’ve been following the details of this story with great interest. My eldest will be completing college applications this autumn. She is a remarkable student; however, unlike many of my fellow alumni, I have not had the means to put her into every imaginable extracurricular activity.
Yet, I had impressed upon her the importance of always doing her best and getting into a “good” university to improve her choices for the future, particularly since there will not be a windfall waiting for her when I die.
But the recent events have left a sour taste in my mouth. Particularly since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve been rethinking the stressors that are placed on students in the hopes of getting them into the “best” schools.
So much anxiety and lost sleep. Pressures to compete. I can no longer say that it’s worth it. The recent admissions scandal broke open the “secret” that many of us already knew. There is great iniquity in our society and college admissions reflect that.
I do believe that education is very important. That has not changed. But the artificial ways that we twist ourselves to fit a mold, to be granted confirmation of our worthiness of being one of the chosen few, is unhealthy.
I have served as an alumna interviewer for prospective students and become increasingly frustrated by the opportunities that wealthier applicants are given, when in fact they may work no harder than their less fortunate counterparts. If anything, I’ve seen relatively poor students do so much with what they have, sometimes as they deal with complicated home situations and an inordinate amount of responsibility.
But one thing seems to hold true for all students, regardless of income: competition for college acceptance teaches them that they’re never “good enough”. Having good grades and high scores is insufficient — they must do more: sports, clubs, musical instruments, volunteer activities, other distinctions, all at nosebleed-high levels of accomplishment. Nothing less than perfection is expected.
And always planning, planning, planning. There is little time to appreciate what is taking place now.
I have bright children, but my wish for them is not necessarily to attend my alma mater. That is not what is important. I want them to be good people. Compassionate, empathetic and not so much in a hurry to get ahead, particularly not if it means treading on others. We have the ability to define our own success and we can do so mindfully and with grace.
This is not something that money can buy, nor that a particular diploma can offer. This is something that comes from within. The greatest gift that I can give my children is to teach them mindfulness, to show them how to still their thoughts and calm their worries. That lesson will serve them for the rest of their lives.
What I would like all those students who tried so hard and still weren’t “accepted” to know:
You are enough. You don’t need an acceptance letter to prove your worth.
You are bright and resourceful, inquisitive and engaged. And no matter where you go to school, you will do well. I see the sparkling light in your eyes — don’t let the heaviness of worldly expectations douse it. You, not some musty ancient institution, are who defines yourself.
Strive for what you feel is important, but do so mindfully and with kindness. That is what will make this world a better place for all.