December 20, 2005

People We Don't Even Know

1550 page16 capHEN OUR AGE FALLS INTO THAT category commonly referred to as ?senior citizen,? looking back and pondering whether or not life was truly well spent isn?t unusual. It?s easy to view our lives as pretty unimportant.

But regardless of our current life circumstances, we?ve probably positively influenced many people in our lifetime. Moreover, it?s likely that some people affected by us we never even met. We might be surprised, as was David.

Is That All There Is?
David,* a successful businessman, learned that he had inoperable cancer. He told his pastor one day that he saw his life as having been pretty much for naught. He told Pastor Walters that he had never married, and that he had instead spent his energies inventing things. ?I made a lot of money from them,? he said, ?but that really doesn?t mean much now, in the grand scheme of things.?

1550 page16Walters asked David about his inventions. He ticked off a list of a dozen well-known products, but one really caught the pastor?s attention. It was a medical appliance that made it possible for persons with a serious and commonly debilitating medical condition to live practically normal lives. The pastor happened to know someone who used one of the devices.

The minister prodded David. Had he never thought about how valuable that device was to those who needed it? Did he realize that without that appliance thousands of persons would be invalids, unable to leave their beds?

David responded, ?I invented that to make money. The fact it helped someone wasn?t my prime reason for developing and marketing it.?

?Have you ever met a person who uses your equipment?? Walters asked. ?Have you ever asked a patient what it meant to them??

David admitted he had never talked to a patient who used the device. He simply said that if he hadn?t invented it, someone else would have.

Pastor Walters said nothing to David about Teresa, the person he knew who used one of the medical appliances. But the next time he saw Teresa, Walters mentioned to her that he had met the inventor. Her face brightened.

?Can I meet him?? she asked enthusiastically. ?I?d love to thank him for creating it.? She told Walters to tell David about her.

A Case Study
When David next had a conversation with Pastor Walters, he sat in stunned silence as the minister told him about Teresa. ?Yes, I?d like to meet her,? he said. ?I?d like to take her and her husband out to dinner.?

A few days later Walters called David and told him that Teresa and her husband were eager to meet him, but that she wanted him to come to their home, where she would prepare a meal for him.

Questions for Reflection or for Use in Your Small Group

1. Name five people who?ve enriched your life, probably without knowing it.

2. What are the things that are most likely to leave a lasting effect on someone else? Are they material, emotional, spiritual, or a combination of the three?

3. What?s the secret to living a life that is ultimately beneficial to others?

4. When have you been surprised by someone telling you that your life influenced theirs? Tell about it briefly.

David arrived at Teresa?s home on Tuesday evening a week later, expecting to dine with the woman, her husband, and their two children. Instead, when he entered their home, he was welcomed into a dinner party of more than 50 people. To his surprise, he found he was the guest of honor at the gala celebration.

Conversation before and during the meal was chitchat and small talk, but after dinner Teresa called for everyone?s attention. She told David, ?Each person here tonight has something to tell you.? Looking at her husband, she said, ?Alan, would you like to start?? When Alan finished, their children spoke. Then Teresa?s parents, other family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, even Pastor Walters spoke.

They each shared with David how the appliance Teresa used, his invention, had affected their lives. Alan thanked David for keeping his wife alive; her children thanked him for a mother who now could do so many things with them that a few years before she couldn?t do. Coworkers told David how Teresa?s presence in their workplace made their experience so much more enjoyable. Pastor Walters told how Teresa?s voice strengthened the church choir. All the expressions came down to one basic fact: Teresa was alive, well, contributing in so many ways, and living a great life because she used David?s invention.

It took more than an hour for everyone present to share how their lives had changed, thanks to David?s invention. It was an hour filled with expressions of joy and praise, along with tears of happiness.

Back to Reality
David came away from the dinner party with the knowledge that yes, he had made a lot of money through his inventions, and yes, he had worried about his financial bottom line a lot, but he?d also helped change for the better the lives of thousands of people.

David later told Pastor Walters that in his richest imagination he couldn?t have envisioned that his invention would affect so many more persons than just the person using it. Nor could he have imagined how it would improve all of their lives, not just the patient?s. He came to see that his company?s products weren?t just about money. David learned that we touch many more lives than we can ever know, not necessarily by doing extraordinary things, but also by doing ordinary things well, such as creating useful items and running a business successfully.

The premise in Mitch Albom?s novel The Five People You Meet in Heaven is that when we get to the kingdom, we will meet five people in heaven whom we affected during our lifetime. Some of them will be people we never knew, but influenced nonetheless. Albom?s story is speculative imagination, but David?s, Teresa?s, and Pastor Walters? story is real.

And so is the fact that others have benefited from our positive actions--many of them people we won?t ever know until we meet them in heaven.

* All names, except Mitch Albom?s, have been changed to assure privacy.

Richard Bauman writes from West Covina, California.