Every person hears a question knock on life’s door. Frustration gives it birth and mortality provides its cry.
“Did I make any difference?”
In the infancy of television, Rod Serling, a gravel-throated man with a dagger-like stare, produced a series called The Twilight Zone. Most of the episodes had a twinge of science fiction. It introduced young William Shatner and Jack Nicholson to the viewing public.
But one episode was more cerebral. It asked the existential question, “did I make any difference.”
The episode, The Changing of the Guard, starred Donald Pleasance as Professor Fowler. Fowler was an aging teacher at a male prep school who taught literature.
One day the headmaster informs him that the board decided he should retire. That was not in his plans, thinking he would die while reciting Tennyson to high school boys. His spirit shattered.
He flipped through old yearbooks, remembering boys who had sat in classes. Memory resurrected young men who went on to war, many who had died in Italy or Iwo Jima.
He put the yearbooks away, took a walk to the cemetery, where he took a gun from his pocket to end his empty life. “I made no difference to anyone I taught,” he sighed.
Suddenly, he stood in his empty classroom. Boys from the yearbook materialized in front of his eyes. Each one stepped forward to testify about his influence.
One who died as a hero remembered the words of a poem that gave him courage. Another described how something he had said in class kept him going in difficulty. Each one had a story of a word or lesson which they tattooed to their souls.
The final voice recites John Donne:
Each man’s death diminishes me
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
As quickly as they appear, his phantom class disappears. The empty classroom soon fades back to the snowy gravestones.
It is then that Professor Fowler knows the answer. He has made a dent in the universe. He has changed lives.
The episode targets the human thirst for the meaning of a man’s life. Does it matter?
For a naturalistic world, men are cogs in the gears of nature. Their only meaning is to keep in sync with everything else. Many whisper Solomon’s words, “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
We want to know, see what happens. Yet, life doesn’t always pull back the curtain to see the cast. We never see impact and influence, yet It exists.
How do we deal with this strange paradox that we make a difference we never see?
First, we do our best. Much of influence is about showing up and doing it well. If you don’t do what you do well, no one gets helped.
Second, be patient. No farmer makes a seed grow by standing over it, shouting, “GROW!” Instead, it is planting, tending, watering, coaxing from the ground the spouts. The agricultural paradigm fits moderns better than we realize. When we serve people, we change people. It is an invisible truth.
Third, express appreciation while you can. One reason people ask themselves the “did I make a difference” question is they don’t know. If a teacher helped you, thank them. Adult children need to say “thank you” to parents who sacrificed and strove to help, even when they made mistakes. Never miss an opportunity to say thank you.
Martin Seligman in Flourish, suggests a gratitude letter. You think of someone who made a difference, write a letter but not mail it. Instead, take it to the person and read it aloud to them. No one has to wonder anymore.
The Greeks had a proverb which states:
A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.
We are in the shade planting business. Never quit planting seeds. Never stop doing what God put you on the earth for. Never forget. What you do changes someone.
Plant the seed and let the Lord take care of the difference.