As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
The other morning, I sat outside with three friends beneath golden autumnal leaves and an equally golden October sky.
A brief interlude in our busy lives, our conversation was of the kind nearly universal to almost-middle-aged women everywhere as we caught up on the latest accomplishments of our kids, the happenings at our employment and other places we contribute to, the activities of our spouses, the antics of our extended families and friends, and just life in general.
At this stage in our lives, in our late 30s and early 40s, some of us are changing a lot of diapers while another of us (me) is dealing with a newly empty nest, my first set of kids having already grown up and flown the coop this past year. One of us is about to give birth any day, one of us (also me) is undergoing an intensive adoption application, three of us are juggling employment and volunteering, some of us have experienced health challenges, and all of us have rich and complex relationships to navigate inside and outside our families.
It’s a busy season of life, one that involves (to varying degrees and in differing ways for each of us) a whole lot of non-glamorous-but-essential small activities. Things like wiping little noses and changing countless bottoms; handing in work assignments with high expectations and tight deadlines; cooking family meals that our teenagers may or may not turn their noses up at (those same noses we once so lovingly wiped, may I add?!); and playing peacemaker between extended family members.
We scrub bathtubs that don’t clean themselves, give work presentations that are now over Zoom, and march our families to church, also over Zoom. One of us (me) walked alongside a warrior queen of a grandmother for 11 years through a valiant battle with dementia before grieving her deeply after heaven’s gates opened for her last year.
We advise our anxious preteens through the ups and downs of the tumultuous adolescent years, deal with our kids’ school challenges, are the one tasked with finding an online vet to assess the cat when he suddenly starts sneezing and just won’t stop (ahem, true story, my cat), and much more. Trust me, much, much more.
And then, on that golden morning, after all the catching up on our lives was finally done, the conversation with my friends moved first to my warrior grandmother whose home is now heaven and then to the end of our own lives. When those days come for us, as they ultimately will for each person on this earth, where will we be? What will be the sum of our scattered days, spent as they are on numerous seemingly unrelated, small-but-essential activities? What will it mean if our achievements never numbered anything big?
It was Mother Teresa (now Saint Teresa), who once said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” To paraphrase, it is those small unglamorous things that we do day by day that at the end of our lives will sum up how we lived and the impact we made.
One of my friends reflected: at the end of our lives, what relationship will we have with our kids and others? And, further, should we have been people who did the big things, what cost would it have come at in terms of relationships with those who most matter to us? What (or who) would we have been willing to sacrifice?
It’s not, of course, that doing “big” things is wrong—but are we doing those big things in a way that makes a difference without simultaneously sacrificing our relationships with those who are most important to us?
As an example, my friend brought up the legacy of Nelson Mandela, with his record of literally changing the world juxtaposed against leaving behind a broken and hurting family. The newspaper The Guardian describes Mandela as “a great man on the world stage, but not in his home life.”
How easy it is, my friend mused, to put people up on pedestals and then discover they have seriously disappointed us. For example, she and I both long admired the writing of Jean Vanier, the Canadian philosopher and theologian who founded L'Arche, a respected international organization that provides unique living communities for people with developmental disabilities. In 2020, a year after his death, it was revealed Vanier had sexually abused six women (without disabilities) over a 35-year period.
How much good Vanier had seemingly done, and yet his legacy is completely broken by his evil, abominable actions.
In response to all this, another friend shared how she takes time each week to intentionally stop to pray about the actions of her life, to check with God about if what she is doing is in alignment with his will for her life. “We can get in a momentum and not stop and ask, ‘What do I need to do today? Am I called to be with my kids today?” she explained. “I want my ministry to be a landing spot for others.”
And that landing spot, ultimately, is the answer.
As Christians, our core calling is to love God and love our neighbor. That will likely mean a whole lot of small activities done day after day for those God has brought into our lives. They might not be glamorous or big actions. In fact, many of them will probably be small. But they will be an invaluable investment in the lives of those we love. And, when our final day arrives, this ultimately will be the legacy we leave.