Many of the little things we do to show kindness and caring to others go unnoticed and even more are quickly forgotten. For the most part, it isn’t a big deal; we are guilty too. Two days ago, I needed a special, hard to find bolt for a home project. I finally found it at an independent local store (Dal R’s) where they refused payment since it was such an inexpensive item. Despite being very touched by their kindness, I also admit that if I saw the clerk again today I wouldn’t remember his face.
Early in my career when I was still a newbie to the counseling profession, I found that I was struggling with the fact that not every student that came to me for guidance or therapy walked out with the knowledge, skill or mindset to improve their circumstances. I had become a counselor to help others and when I failed it troubled me.
I remember one young man in particular named James. He was a self-referred sixth-grader. Back in the early 90’s it wasn’t common for upper elementary boys to self-refer. I don’t recall what was happening in his life that prompted him to ask for weekly sessions; what I recall is my feelings. My best efforts didn’t seem to be enough; I wasn’t able to help him get where he wanted to go, or so I thought.
This went on for several weeks, perhaps months. I couldn’t refer James to another counselor because I was the only one assigned to the small rural school. Referring him to a community counselor was also out of the question because he had made it clear that he didn’t want his parents to know he was talking to me about his problems. I didn’t give up on James but perhaps more importantly, he didn’t give up on me.
I finally asked Alan, another counselor that I had become friends with during graduate school, if he had ever had a student that he just couldn’t reach. He admitted to having the same experience from time to time. “How do you deal with it?” I asked.
Alan told me that counseling our students was, in some ways, like grasping a handful of sand. No matter how hard you try, some of the grains of sand will slip through your fingers. You can use all of your energy to worry about those or you can focus on the ones still in your hand; the ones you can still touch.
I accepted that theory and it helped me. It was spring and when school let out for summer vacation, James stopped by for one final session. He would start middle school across town when the summer break ended. He didn’t get emotional but asked if there was any chance I would be willing to change jobs when school resumed. It was a high compliment; still, I told him it wasn’t likely.
Summer break, short as always, ended and school resumed. The middle school students, my former “kids”, rode buses back to their previous elementary school, where they switched buses to ride in the ones that would deliver them to their homes. I had hall duty rather than bus duty so I didn’t get to see James or my other former students during those brief moments of transition. From time to time I would think about James and hope that he was okay.
Two years passed, I no longer had hall duty at the end of the day. Typically I used that time to finish up notes and straighten my office for the next day. I was at my desk with my back to the hall when I heard a voice asking, “You don’t remember me do you?”
I turned around and saw a much more mature version of the student I had worked with when he was a sixth grader. “Of course I remember you, James!” I was happy that he thought of me and took the time to say hello.
He gave me a sheepish smile and admitted that he had told the busdriver he needed to use the bathroom as an excuse to come into the building and quickly try to locate me before the buses left again. “Do you remember when I used to come talk to you?” I said I did and to my surprise, James very sincerely stated, “I probably never told you, but it really helped me.” He didn’t have time to say more and dashed out the door just in time to load the waiting bus. I have never seen James again.
All the time that I thought I wasn’t helping him, thinking I was failing him, I was wrong. In that moment, knowing I had been wrong was the best thing that had happened to me in a very long time.
The sand analogy, while pretty cool, may not be the best one for those of us that make our living in one of the helping professions. Instead, our work may be more like the story of a man that is walking along a beach that is heavily littered with stranded starfish. As he walks, he picks them up one at time, tossing them back into the ocean. When his companion tells him it is impossible to save them all, that his efforts are futile, he responds by tossing yet another starfish back into the sea and remarking, “Yes, but I saved that one.”
Some of our good intentions go unnoticed and sometimes our best efforts fail. There is another angle to keep in mind. James gave me a gift. He made me realize that we don’t always get to see the fruits of our good works but that doesn’t diminish the sweetness to those that reap the harvest. I venture to say that, James has no idea that in thanking me for helping him, he helped me.
I am challenging myself to be mindful off this, especially when others treat me with disrespect or are intentionally hurtful. If I can see past their behavior in the moment, to where perhaps a broken spirit resides, then I might just be able to choose a reaction that doesn’t further break them.
As we go about our lives this week, I hope you will join me on this quest; the quest of the ripple effect brought on from human interactions. We help or we hurt and most of the time we have no idea how far our ripple travels and how many lives are touched. I set off a small ripple for James and it returned to me as a wave. That is why I want to try harder to be a helper instead of a hurter. The difference I make might be compared to giving first aid rather than a cure but isn’t that better than twisting the knife sticking out of someone’s back?
Be well, my friends. If you enjoy my blog, please pass it on to your friends.
Photo credit to the following: Deepak Mahajan, Ian Dooley, Pedro Lastra and Amy Humphries.