When wet cement is poured, there’s a certain draw to etch something in it. Often, people write their initials in a metaphysical attempt to capture eternity and leave a legacy that will live on, even if they don’t realize that’s why they’re doing it.
There is an innate desire within each of us to make a difference in the world in a noticeable way. The question is how we can achieve this. For some it is through achieving great levels in their careers or education; authoring a book or scientific paper. For some it is through building something that will outlive them or planting a tree. But the truth is, leaving your mark is much simpler.
The idea came to me at shul one day. We have a white library cart on wheels to hold the siddurim and chumashim. I noticed that it has a number of red and blue scuff marks on it. I realized these marks came from people taking out the books and putting them back. Even though they weren’t trying to, they left an impression when they passed by.
The world of forensic science is based on the premise that it is impossible to be in a place without leaving behind some telltale mark. Fingerprints, hair, dust, whatever it is, they can tell you were there. The open secret, then, is that you don’t have to do something grandiose or astounding to make an impact. If people would only realize this, who knows what kind of a world we would have?
For example, my daughter lives in Yerushalayim. She went back during the war and told us, “There’s so much I can do. There are so many wives whose husbands are in the army and they need help with the kids, with shopping, or babysitting so they can get a break.” She understands that you don’t have to be fighting on the front to help; you just have to think of others and do what you can.
The small interactions we have with others mean so much. When I’m walking down the street or in a store, and I see another person, I smile. When they smile back, I feel like they’ve taken notice of me. It makes me feel so special, and I appreciate it.
Of course, when they ignore me, or continue their scowl, it hurts a little bit. If we took into account the feelings of others when we took a stand on something, we might soften our stance a little. I don’t like talking in shul, but I’m not making people who do it to be villains. It wouldn’t ingratiate me to them if I did, and surely it wouldn’t win them over to my side. The people who blame others are also making an impact on the world, and that’s something to think about.
Maya Angelou said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” It’s so true, and something we should reflect on often, because that’s how we’re going to impact the world, for good or for bad.
Every day, we interact with people and during those connections something will rub off, like the siddur on the book cart. We ought to consider whether it will leave a small, happy, red or blue line, or an ugly black mark on their hearts and souls. When they think of us, or of that encounter, will it make them smile, or cry? We all have memories that haunt us. Do you want to be a memory that haunts another?
I have memories of my own that haunt me, when I said something insensitive, and I pray that the person on the receiving end doesn’t replay that memory again and again like I do. I’m shocked that I was so thoughtless, and try to be so careful in what I say and do.
We all want to live on for posterity, and the way to do that is to leave behind people who are happy they met us, glad they know us, and feel richer for the experience. They could be our family or they could be complete strangers. Regardless of whether we mean to or not, we will leave a mark.
Just how widespread is this phenomenon? Let me leave you with a joke about Covid. To what can you compare the spread of Covid in 2020? Let’s say 10 people are doing crafts and one person is working with glitter. Question: how many projects will have glitter on them? Answer: all of them. They will all have glitter.
That’s how we are when we go about our days minding our own business, not realizing we’re entering others lives. We are, and the real question is: “How much glitter will we leave behind?”
Growing up a rabbi’s son, Jonathan Gewirtz moved around and met people from all walks of life. A columnist and speechwriter, he draws on his experiences for his writing. As the scion of a rabbinic family, he is passionate about the power of words and the greatness inherent in each of us.