“The world needs you!”
I know, I know…
This sounds like one of those feel good phrases that doesn’t really mean anything. If you’re like me, it is likely to automatically bring a slightly sarcastic response. Something like:
“Does it really? It seems to be getting along fine on it’s own so far.” …
Recently, I was walking through a park in London, one of those ones that are built around cemeteries which are hundreds of years old.
Every now and then, I would stop and read one of the faded memorials written on crumbling grave stones. Each one gave the tiniest of glimpses, into a unique life, of a husband or a wife, a parent or a child. Someone who had lived, and died, nearly 200 years ago.
Even though these glimpses were tiny, a strong distinct pattern began to emerge. Each memorial was a little story of love. Written by the people who had cared for the person who had died, or people the dead person had cared for. Very often written about the things they had done, for the ones they loved.
Perhaps this one was a bricklayer, living in a slum. But he out goes each day, along with dozens of other labourers, to work on a massive building.
It is a set of luxury flats (1800s style). Each flat is waayyyyy more expensive than the bricklayer, or any one in his family, can ever dream of affording.
It is dangerous work. 5 people have died on the job so far, and more have severely injured. There is no health and safety, or workers compensation for injury, in those days.
Still he goes to that dangerous job every day, to make a tiny amount of money, so that he can go back to the slum and put a tiny roof over the head of his wife and young child.
Perhaps this one was a teacher.
When she was young her family had been wealthy enough to have her tutored.
However, since the death of her father, and the injury of her husband, they had fallen on hard times.
Luckily, she was able to get a job as a teacher at one of the new free state schools. The job was hard but she got a little better at it every day. The pay wasn’t very good.
But it was enough for her to buy some food for her family and some medicine for her youngest daughter. The one who was sick with consumption (what we now call tuberculosis).
Of course, all this is way too much information to be contained on those small grave stones. But this was what life was like for those who lived at the time, … and the memorials encourage me to fill in the details.
As I head out of the park I wonder if any of them succeeded. In making the lives of those they loved better I mean. Did any of them even have any chance of succeeding?
In those days, the slum the bricklayer lived in would have contained whole families, squeezed into small wooden huts. Hut’s that were smaller than a single bedroom today, in the home of an average London family.
The only source of water for all the families in that slum would have been a single tap (pumped by hand) at the corner of the Main Street.
As for the teacher?
Those medicines she was buying, they wouldn’t work. She lived in a time when the major treatment for any sickness was cutting the patient open and letting them bleed!
In a time when simply giving birth to a baby, was more likely to kill you than coronavirus ever was (even at the height of the 2020 pandemic)!
As I leave the park, it feels like moving from the past to the present. I look around London today, but these people of the past are still on my mind.
By now, even their children’s, children’s, children would have had children. Their descendants will probably number in the hundreds.
And that’s when I see the answer!
Yes! They definitely succeeded. In a much bigger way than they could ever have imagined!
The home the bricklayer could afford may have been tiny and fragile, but the block of flats he built still stands.
They are no longer considered luxury flats, they have become much more affordable. More than that, the city government now rents some of those flats and, if any of the bricklayer’s descendants are too poor to afford a flat today, the city will put them in one of the flats, for free.
Perhaps into one of the very same flats he built so many years ago!
The medicine the teacher bought for her daughter may not have worked very well. But what about those lessons she taught?
They would have helped give many young students a better start in life. That start would have propelled them into different careers. For some of them, that career would have been medicine.
Any of her students going into medicine would have arrived at an exciting time, when a revolution was happening!
The existence of bacteria was just being discovered, how they could cause diseases and how those diseases could actually be treated! It is almost inevitable that her students would have been part of that in some way.
Partly thanks to those students, her great-great-great-great-grandchildren now live in a world where smallpox has been eradicated!
Where diseases that terrified her can be treated with a single pill! Where the average lifespan is more than double what it was when she was alive!
The world they built, brick by brick, day by day, has done more to protect and take care of their children, and their children’s children, than they could ever have dreamed.
In helping to build that better world, whether they knew it or not, they became part of a greater purpose. A purpose that touched and blessed not just their lives and their children’s lives, but all our lives as well.
In today’s world many of us are looking for a similar kind of purpose, a kind of greater meaning. We are doing it much more consciously and intentionally than our ancestors (who were much more focused on struggling to survive), ever did.
How did they become part of such a big purpose, when they weren’t even looking for it?
It’s worth taking a moment to mention where they didn’t find it. They didn’t find it inside themselves.
- Not by looking inside for what they enjoyed
- Or by looking inside for what they were naturally good at
- Or by looking inside to try to figure out what they were supposed to do
In order for a boat to stay steady in strong currents, it has to throw an anchor outside of itself. It needs to link to something external, in order to hold itself steady.
So, how did they find that purpose?
Simple. They found a problem, and they did something to make it better.
The interesting thing is, they already had problems of their own at home. Problems which they definitely needed help solving.
However, in order to get help for their own problem, they went out and gave help to make someone else’s problem better.
In the short term they received some payment for doing this. This provided some small help for their own problems.
In the long term though, it made them an indelible part of our progress and our history. A part of a much bigger purpose. Even if their names are forgotten, their contributions continue to live on.
Think of some historical figures who are remembered today for fulfilling great purposes.
We may think of some who were rich and some who were poor, some who were charismatic and some who were boring,
some who seemed incredibly smart and some who worked incredibly hard.
However, we will see that there is something they ALL did!
They each took a problem, and did something to make it better.
In that pattern, lies the path to the purpose we seek.
Once we realise this, the world starts to look very different. We begin to see potential purposes everywhere.
Every time we hear people raising awareness for a disease, a disaster, or crisis,
Every time we hear of some organisation raising money for a cause,
Even when we hear a company offering to pay for someone to do a difficult job!
These are all people with problems, asking for help. These are all purposes, looking for people to be a part of them. It might be a big part or a small part. It might seem like a huge purpose or a small one.
All we need to do, is choose one.
It is not a one time life-long choice though.
Life is a journey, and any choice we make is related to where we are right now on that journey.
To be any good at solving problems, and connecting to bigger purposes, we must be willing to learn, and we must be willing to grow.
And, as we learn and grow, we will also get better at making more effective and fulfilling choices.
In other words, as we become better at solving problems, we also become better at choosing problems to solve.
Well to be fair though, I guess we could still say the world doesn’t need us specifically.
What it specifically needs is anyone. Anyone who is willing to look at this list of problems, pick one and say;
“I’ll see what I can do.”
For now though, the world has many more problems than it has people solving them.
It will be easy to notice when this changes, when there are more problem solvers than problems to solve, because we will start running out of problems.
When that happens, the evening news will all be stories about cute kittens, and happy romances.
As soon as any new problem is about to start, there will be an excess of people who show up almost immediately to solve it.
I imagine that will be quite an amazing world to live in.
There is a path from where we are today to that future world. That world where problems are practically extinct. It is a tricky path, some parts of it are hidden by thick fog that is hard to see through.
From where we are standing though, we can see a very important junction on that path. We can see that what happens at this junction directly impacts when, or even if, we get to that future world.
There is someone standing in the middle of this important junction. By their actions, they affect everything that goes through there. Speeding up some things, slowing down some things, stopping others.
Who is this person? This person whose actions can have such a significant impact on our arrival at that future?
It is you.
No pressure then. 🙂
For Further Reading
Call the midwife – A book by Jennifer Worth
This fun story about the life of a mid-wife/nun gives an interesting insight into what life was like in London’s East End in the 1950’s. It is incredible to see the difference between the London our grandparents lived in and the London of today.
Only you can save mankind – A book by Terry Pratchett
This is a playful sci-fi book aimed at teenage readers.
Johnny Maxwell is trying to play his new computer game when an unexpected message pops up on his screen. He chooses to respond, and adventure begins!
Like most Terry Pratchett books, the story is fun, easy to read and it shows us things about our world that we pass everyday, but usually never see.