Every encounter’s opportunity

A few days ago, my dear bride was cleaning out an old file box of recipes and came across a hand-written document she penned more than 60 years ago, when she was working toward her master’s degree in higher education administration. In this note, she expressed her frustration and anxiety about determining her purpose in life. Spoiler alert: She went on to a productive career in higher education administration, followed by another one as a medical editor working with a world-class cardiothoracic surgery team. Along the way, she and I married and together raised three wonderful daughters, all now enjoying successful careers.

About the same time we were rereading that old note to herself, prompts began showing up on social media, inviting people to recall memorable details of their high school years, citing among other things, our yearbooks. A common theme in their pages were noble sentiments expressed by us teenagers and our classmates of our desire to make the world a better place, to find a way to serve humanity. Reassuringly, we find that many of today’s school seniors feel the same way.

In the decades since our high school graduations, how have we done? Wise people tell us that it is a mistake to underestimate one’s influence on others. Those who witness our behavior, hear us speak, read what we write, are affected, and sometimes profoundly. In our country and in this lifetime, we can cite examples of prominent people whose behavior has affected many, former president Jimmy Carter, Bill and Melinda Gates, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, many, many others. But there also are so many less famous who have affected a single life in a profound way. I immediately think of medical practitioners, particularly nurses, who have affected me, and in particular teachers, and I want to thank them every day.

Life steered me into teaching, a second career, in my 40s when I was accepted on the faculty of a major university in the south. My life changed on that day and has been indescribably richer for the wonderful time spent with hundreds of extraordinary students. They helped me beyond measure then and continue to do so now, 17 years into my retirement. Some of them tell me that I helped them. If so, I’m thrilled. Witnessing the growth and success of one’s students is the best part of teaching.

The beauty of this life’s journey is that we never really run out of opportunities to affect someone else in a positive way. Every encounter is an opportunity. Seize it.