We often minimize our own effort and positive impact in this world. The murkiness of comparing-mind clouds our view: it’s always other people who are more effective, innovative, compassionate, and wise.
Last week, I did pastoral visits in prison. I sat with J, as I’ve done many times before. His life story is the hardest I’ve heard. And, in each moment, he’s aware, transformed, and kind. What he’s been through breaks my heart. What he did breaks my heart. And how he’s changed inspires me greatly. It exposes me to humanity and fills me with hope.
Still, he’s in a dark place. His pain is big. He’s exhausted from rebuilding after each depression. He feels unworthy and tired. He understands his cycles and knows he’s resilient, but it’s getting harder to keep going. In the same breath, he tells me how he doesn’t want to burden me. He’s worried about me taking on his pain. He’s empathetic, broken, kind, and self-aware. And he’s in prison for life. Many days he’d rather not be alive—it’s just too exhausting.
I look J in the eyes. I honor his deep pain—a relentless pain I’ve never experienced but I've come to recognize, support, and honor. I accept that I can’t control his actions (nor would I judge his actions), but I’d miss him if he were gone. Then I wholeheartedly reflect to him: J, you make a difference in this hell-realm of prison. You’re a refuge because you value safety, listening, and friendship. You underestimate the positive impact you have on each person you encounter. An impact created simply by being you—respectful, kind, and aware. You’re a light in the darkness, even when you feel stuck in that very darkness.
As I speak, tears form in his eyes. His own goodness revealed. Daily, J inspires me in meaningful ways. He’s a steady, kind, wise presence in an environment that’s filled with fear and anger. His very essence—that which he perceives as unworthy—settles and calms people; it creates safe space. And this goodness, reflected to him, brings him to tears. He assumes it’s “other people” who are doing good work, not him. He minimizes his impact.
This is a humble path we walk. Aggrandizing our impact is harmful. Minimizing our impact is equally harmful. But if we do the work—if we’re present, compassionate, real, vulnerable, and brave—we have a positive impact, often in ways we can’t know or imagine. This impact comes not from what we do but from who we are; from how we carry ourselves; from how we exist mindfully and heartfully in a complicated world.