There it was – “Angela” written on the front of the peanut butter jar. When I asked my six year old why she did it, she stopped what she was doing and said simply, “I wanted everyone to know I was going to eat peanut butter.” When she wrote her name on the sheets a few years ago, I had asked a similar question. “Why did you write your name on there?” The answer then had been, “I don’t know. … I was there.”
It’s not the first time one of our children has made his or her mark on an item in our home. With nine children, over the years I’ve found names written practically everywhere- on the walls, in books, on the sidewalk, on the sides of shoes and on shower doors, among other places. Sometimes the names are bold and large. Other times, they are tiny. It doesn’t seem to bother the kids that they’re found out automatically by signing. They somehow seem to need to say, “I’m here. I was here.” Or “This is mine.” Writing one’s name on something denotes ownership . . . or simply signifies one’s undeniable presence.
The day my husband and I moved out of our very first house we went up into the small, walk-in closet on the second floor of the tiny Cape Cod home, and squeezed into it together. My husband had remembered writing “David Thomas was here” on the basement wall in his old childhood home as a kid, and that gave us the idea for what we were about to do. We looked briefly at one another in the dim 25 watt light emanating from the old bulb. And then I giggled…and handed him a pen. There we sat, together, slouched in that teeny, slanted ceiling second-story closet and he wrote, “David and Theresa Thomas were here. 1987 to 1993. Thanks for the memories” in indelible pen. Then we left.
We never really stop wanting to leave a mark, do we? We all want to make our claims, our marks on the world. We want others to know that we were here, that we did something. Authors write books, sometimes, with the hope of leaving something that extends beyond their natural lifetime. Artists create paintings. In fact, entire civilizations have left monuments and other stately physical structures in order to state their existence and “leave something” for posterity.
While physical marks are one type of leaving evidence of one’s presence, there are other intangible ways of making a mark. “Making a name for oneself” is one expression of this, but in fact, every single thing we do leaves a mark of some kind on the world. Like a pebble in a pond which creates a ripple, every word we say, every task we undertake, affects others around us in some way. Everything we do, for good or for naught, affects others and thus directly or indirectly affects society.
I remember seeing a cartoon which depicted a boss yelling at a man, who went home and then snapped at his wife, who was then impatient with their child, who then kicked the dog … It’s a domino effect and the default mode of human nature- to react in kind unless we make conscious choices to do otherwise.
The ripple effect can also be positive. One kind word can start a wave of thoughtfulness and we won’t know until life’s end the true effect of one considerate and caring gesture.
Yukio Shige is a retired Japanese man who spends most of his days at Tojimbo Cliffs, a venue where many despondent people come to commit suicide. He simply observes the people who come to the cliff. When he notices someone alone who appears to be distraught or anxious he approaches that person and engages them in conversation, often preventing the life-ending action the person came to commit. His simple action has left a profound mark on the world, in the lives of those he has saved and in the lives of those who will now come into contact with those he has saved.
“Many people don’t have anybody to turn to when they are in dire trouble,” said Shige, “even those who are determined to commit suicide still hope that someone will come from behind and stop them from jumping off the cliff.” (http://www.japanprobe.com/2008/10/31/man-saves-lives-at-japanese-suicide-cliff/ )
….which makes me think, what if we really paid attention to the needs of those around us? If we were attentive, could we read the signs of those who might otherwise harm others or themselves? Could we significantly ease others’ pain? What would be the long-term effect on the world of an enhanced perception on our part?
A high school girl I know noticed a despondent classmate and simply asked her after math class one day, “Are you okay? You seem down.” It seems that she indeed was ‘down’. So ‘down’ that she told this girl she had actually been considering suicide since the sad and accidental death of one of her friends. One simple question, “Are you okay?” led to the pouring out of a heart, and a young girl finding the professional help she needed after a classmate encouraged her to seek it.
What a mark that young girl made in her classmate’s life.
Even if we never prevent a suicide, we can still make a profound difference in the lives of those around us. We affect others more than we will probably ever know – in this life at least.
One of my favorite movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life” in which George Bailey finds out what the world would be like without him. It turns out, there are many lives that the simple but good George has touched, lives who would be unalterably different had he never been born. The same is true of ours.
What kind of mark are we making in our little circles of the universe? Each of us comes into contact with a unique group of people and we have a unique area of influence. What will be our mark for posterity? It’s something to think about, really, and then act accordingly. The truth is, we sign our names on everything we say, do, and touch. Like Angela, who made her “mark” most recently on a simple peanut butter jar, we have a need to write our names somewhere, possibly many places, in this world. Let’s make them be where they can do good for others, and let’s make sure that future generations are blessed because we were here.
The original of this article appeared first in Today’s Catholic News, serving the diocese of Fort Wayne/South Bend Indiana.
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