A short while ago Jack Nicholson’s movie â€œAbout Smithâ€ finished and for quite some time after the credits finished rolling I sat very still. It wasn’t just Nicholson’s genius for understatement and facial expression that made the movie so funny and tragic at the same time, but perhaps the way it brushed up hard against many of the feelings I’ve been going through myself in the last three years. At the very end, when he’s speaking in his mind to his sponsored foster child in Africa, and he says, â€œWe are all so very small. I am a failure. I cannot think of anyone to whom I’ve made a difference in my life.â€ I had to grit my teeth to keep from blubbering all over the place.
But it’s true. Lately it seems so much that days and weeks and months, and now years, go by with a growing sense that the threads that had attached to various people I got to know when I was younger are all snapping. And the older I grow the less my presence seems to mean, (truly mean, not just polite gestures) to anyone. Daily the sense that the years will pass and my time alive will have moved no one flickers at the back of my mind. I morbidly wonder sometimes just who would bother to come to my funeral were I to die tomorrow. My family, yes, but precious few others.
And so much of this state of affairs rests on my own failure to be there for others.
Back in 1995 when my wife and were bicycling around Europe for six months for our honeymoon we encountered a man in Sweden whose charisma remains as potent today as the day we met him. His name was Boudewijn Wegerif. We had been cycling through a wilderness area surrounded by spruce forest as far was we could see, down a straight road with not a car or soul to disturb the stillness for most of the day. It was hot and when we came upon an old stone well we joyfully set our heavy bicycles down along the verge of the road and helped ourselves to some of the ice cold water from the well bucket. The well sat well back from the road and we worried a little about being out of sight of the bicycles, so when suddenly we noticed this big, bearded man wheeling what looked like a baby carriage up to our bicycles and stopping to examine them, our heads popped up. He waved to us and we went down to meet him.
It turned out that he was walking from Kiruna in Northern Sweden down to South Africa, walking for peace and love and a society of sustainability and less reliance on a money economy, or, in his words, â€œLove’s Victory Over the Debt and Guilt Cross of the Worldâ€. The sun had burned his bare arms and face bright red and he was sweating, so when we offered him a swig of the cold well water he beamed us a big smile. We took to talking and for half an hour we conversed about setting up and living in gentler and more earth-friendly communities. His enthusiasm was infectious, so much so that even after he continued down that long, hot road, I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
What was especially strange about the encounter… actually about most of that trip… was that part of the goal of the journey was for us to find a community with which we could become a part and to change our lifestyles from the hectic urban runaround towards something with more cooperation and attendance to the land. One after another we seemed to meet just the kind of people we needed to talk to, in the oddest and most unlikely places. Boudewijn Wegerif, I later found out, was quite well known in Europe and his 2 and a half year walk to Cape Town, South Africa was produced as a documentary film called â€œLong Walk Homeâ€ by the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
Yesterday I discovered he died last year. Though I had only met him for an instant, the news shook me. Coupled with today’s Nicholson movie, Wegerif’s death and the gentle influence he had on so many people made me think about just how I might be able to make a difference in people’s lives.
Because it is not too late. And there is no reason whatsoever that I should give in to sadness. As Wegerif asked the people who read his web site, â€œWhat matters to you?â€
No matter how small we may be, the spark still makes a difference.