RADIO INTERVIEWER in Texas recently asked me, “How do we know that our positive actions will make any difference at all?” The program was live so I had to answer on the spot.
I swallowed hard and replied, “We don’t know.” Pause. “But that’s not the point,” I added. I grasped for a paraphrase of Václav Havel’s wonderful words: “Hope is…. not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
The host’s question wouldn’t leave me alone after the radio show ended. Nor would Mr. Havel’s words. I want the things I work for to “turn out well,” but hope doesn’t follow my tidy agenda.
I’m learning this the hard way in my own small efforts toward making a positive difference. For three years, I’ve been mentoring Amy* through Big Brothers Big Sisters. As we’ve swum and watched movies, kayaked and cooked, talked and played with my cat, we have slowly woven a bond at once delicate and tough. She teasingly calls me a nature freak and tries to talk me into watching shows like The Bachelor and Crime Scene Investigators so I will have a better grip on the real world. I laugh and listen and map out plans I think will help guide her toward self-worth and success. It’s only now that I’m beginning to see that I was operating under the delusion that I had all the answers–or at least some pretty good ones.
So when Amy told me she’d always wanted to learn the violin, I offered to pay for her lessons if she worked hard to improve her grades. We drafted a contract together and both signed it. The lessons went well for a few months, and at the end of the school year, she showed me her report card, a solid column of A’s and B’s. But not long after, she decided to quit the violin. A few of her grades dropped the next quarter. I felt like I’d failed.
Then I decided to try to teach her about saving money. I hooked her up with a lucrative babysitting gig on the condition that she’d deposit most of the money in a savings account instead of spending it on clothes. She took the job but told me, “My family said they’d handle my finances.” Strike two.
Last year, in the middle of eighth grade, Amy needed to pick a high school from among several in the area. When she told me that she wanted to go to the alternative high school so she could get into a good college, I thought, Great. Here’s something I can help her accomplish. I coached her on her admissions essay as we sat at my kitchen table eating pizza. By the end of the evening, she had written, by herself, an articulate essay on dealing with predators in Internet chat rooms. I felt so proud of her when she read the essay aloud, her voice confident and strong. Finally, it seemed, my efforts might be paying off.
A few days later, Amy told me, “I decided I don’t want to go to that school. I want to be with my friends.” And so she chose the less rigorous school. Foiled again.
Every plan I’ve made to “help” Amy has failed. When this finally dawned on me, I felt stupid and naïve. What had I helped her accomplish during our three years together?
Not much, it seemed–at least until last summer. I was driving to dinner with a friend when I saw a tall, pale girl walking a rottweiler down a lonely stretch of wet road. It was Amy. We hadn’t seen each other for a few weeks because she had moved out of town to live with her mom. I rolled down the window and introduced her to my friend. We chatted a little and then drove on.
The next day, Amy and I had lunch together. “It was so amazing that you drove by last night because I was thinking about you,” she said.
“What were you thinking?” I asked.
“Well, she said, “there were all these little snails all over the road. I decided to pick them up and move them so they wouldn’t get run over. When I was done, I thought, Hey, this is something Kim would do.”
In that moment, my sense of failure vanished–along with my agenda, which wasn’t what Amy needed anyway. The way I can make a difference in her life can’t be plotted or measured because the only thing I can give her is the unadorned offering of my company.
From her new town, Amy e-mails me funny, lively dispatches about her adventures in ninth grade. And this just in: she plans to apply to a more challenging high school next year because she wants to be an astronomer.
I’ll haul out our telescope on her next visit so we can admire the moon’s mysterious face and explore the stars. No plans beyond that. Amy is growing into a strong, savvy young woman with her own agenda. Regardless of how it all turns out, simply sharing time with her, as Václav Havel suggests, makes a great deal of sense.
Amy said, “You can write about me anytime” when I asked her permission to tell this story. I’ve changed her name to protect her privacy.
Editor, Hope Magazine