I could tell that they had no idea who I was. I tried to remind them about the Shabbat meals I had eaten at their house so many years ago. But to no avail. They really just didn’t remember me.
I wasn’t insulted. I often bump into people I met years ago, without being able to place them or recollect how we knew each other. But in this particular case it was funny, because not only did I remember this family in great detail; they were actually responsible, to a great degree, for my life today.
You see, about 18 years ago, one of their daughters was having her bat mitzvah. For some reason, the parents asked if I would come and speak to her group of friends. In doing so, I realized how much I loved public speaking, and began thinking that it was something I wanted to do with my life. At the time, the only public speaking I had done was teaching 12th grade high school, and that was certainly not the kind of reinforcement I needed to choose it as a career.
They were responsible, to a great degree, for my life todayBut showing up at that bat mitzvah, speaking to those girls and having them laugh with me, and then tell me that I inspired them . . . that was something that changed my life.
If only we could know the things we said or did that might have altered someone’s life for the better. If only we could know when we were the right person at the right time who said the right thing. So often, we go through our days thinking we accomplished nothing, having no clue that the person we complimented or smiled at might have needed that smile more than we could ever imagine.
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, taught that we come into this world for our entire lifetime just to do a favor for another. There is even a cute little ditty that the kids sing with this message. Just one favor. Really? A whole lifetime, and that could be the sum total of it all? And yet, maybe that one favor changed a life? Inspired a life? Saved a life?
At a mental health awareness event a few years ago, I heard a man describe his suicide attempt, in which he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Few who have made that 220-foot jump have lived to tell their stories. Actually, only 2 percent of those who jump survive. But this man was one of the fortunate ones.
The second his feet left the bridge, he deeply regretted his decisionHe spoke to us about the power of depression, about the intense loneliness one can feel. The night he made the decision to die, he rode a public city bus to the bridge. He was the last one off the bus at the last stop. As he exited, he looked at the bus driver, desperate for a kind word. But the bus driver never even bothered looking at him.
This young man then made a promise to himself that if anyone smiled at him or asked how he was doing, it would prove to him that his life was worthwhile, and he wouldn’t jump. But no one did. At one point a couple even asked him to take their picture, but, consumed with their own lives, they didn’t pick up on the fact that minutes later their picture-taker would be attempting to take his own life.
Feeling that no one in the world cared about him, and that he had nothing to live for, the man climbed onto the railing of the bridge and jumped. The second his feet left the bridge, he deeply regretted his decision. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die,” he prayed the entire way down. Miraculously, he didn’t. He broke just about every bone in his body, but he lived. Until the rescuers reached him, sea lions swam under his broken body, keeping his head above water.
His story is amazing. But even more extraordinary than his personal survival is the promise he made to himself before he jumped. One smile could have saved his life. We could have been that one person on the bridge. Or that person on the bus with him. We could have offered a smile, or a “have a good night.” And had we offered that smile, we would have gone on our way, having no idea what that small act accomplished. That could have been the favor that the Baal Shem Tov was speaking about.
When I met this family again after so many years, it was clear that the impact they had made on me was much greater than the impact I had made on them. And that was perfectly fine. I didn’t need them to remember me. I just needed them to know how they influenced my life. By giving me the opportunity to speak, they introduced me to something I love, something I have been doing professionally from that point onward. Ironically, I reconnected to this family at a Passover program where my husband and I were the keynote speakers!
Everything we do, the big things as well as the seemingly not so big, can have an impactI felt so blessed that I was able to see this family again, that I was able to thank them for what they had given me, and to let them see that they had made a huge difference in the life of someone they didn’t even remember. Having that experience reminded me that everything we do, the big things as well as the seemingly not so big, can have an impact, sometimes even a lifesaving one. So the next time we walk down the street minding our own business, let’s take that second to look up and smile at a stranger passing by. Maybe, just maybe, that is what he is living for.