“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” – Clarence, the angel, from It’s A Wonderful Life
A few days ago, my dear friend, Ryan, announced in a public statement that he would be leaving his position as a college track and cross country coach at his alma mater. Ryan’s success as a coach, in terms of wins and records set, as well as in terms of his double-digit accolades as conference “Coach of the Year”, is well-documented. And now, thanks to social media, so is his success as an outstanding leader, mentor and human being.
Many of us never get the blessing of knowing with unwavering certainty that we have impacted the world, and the lives of those we’ve touched, for the better. It isn’t that we can’t see with our own eyes or hearts that we’ve done good things. And it isn’t just that no one says “thank you”, because sometimes (maybe often) they do. It is more that the messages aren’t specific or explicit enough to cut through the gelatinous layers of self-doubt and self-criticism we tend to wrap our self-perceptions in.
Reading the tributes and heartfelt messages, the memories and the meaning-making being shared with and about Ryan this week has brought to mind the character, George Bailey, from the movie It’s A Wonderful Life. Because he’s my friend, I’ve been aware of the ways Ryan, like George, has struggled at times – when he’s agonized about being absent as a father or a husband due to the demands of his job; the ways he has tried to grow and sometimes been stymied by forces outside his control. Yet, every day, just like George Bailey, he unwaveringly chose doing the right thing over simply asserting his own desires.
Seen in the harsh light of self-criticism, those daily choices can make you – certainly made George Bailey – feel like a chump. Our narrative of rugged individualism (and our unhealthy cult of personality) in America certainly contributes to this: if you dream big but don’t achieve the exact specifics of that dream, haven’t you failed? George Bailey dreamed of an extraordinarily BIG LIFE, but instead lived a life of ordinary grace. And in his darkest moments, he could only see that as a failure. When he was gifted with the chance to see the world as it would have been had he never been born, George discovered that ordinary grace offers a rich and meaningful, if more subtle, success than living in service to mere ego gratification.
I’ve always loved George Bailey’s story, and enjoyed the plot device of showing him a bleak world resulting from the idea that his kindness and compassion had never existed. But you know what I love more than that story? I love the real-life story of my friend, Ryan, who this week learned how the world is different than it might have been because of his kindness and compassion, his character and unwavering commitment to these values. He didn’t need the intervention of a kindly angel – he simply spoke from his heart. The response has been an outpouring of true stories that plainly show how much light Ryan brings into our world.
I am proud of my friend, and I am grateful – like so many others – for his presence in my life. More important, though, I am inspired. His example demonstrates that each one of us has the potential to serve others in this way. As I follow the threads on Facebook, I see Ryan’s impact moving so far past the sphere of his own influence. So many of those who have learned from him are living those values out in their own lives now – as teachers and coaches and team leaders in business; as parents and siblings and friends. As every-day George Baileys, holding the bleakness at bay by shining their light into the world.
“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.” – R.J. Palacio