He looks like a disheveled Ernest Hemingway, I thought to myself when the old man walked in.
Or like “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” but without the kempt beard, tailored suits, and fawning harem.
But what the old man looked like more than anything, was homeless.
His shoes were worn. His denim jeans were discolored from wear after wear without being washed by anything other than rain. His tattered, button-down shirt barely contained his broad shoulders.
And the old man’s face, cooked with sun, was what Hemingway himself might have seen had the old writer looked in the mirror soon after the successive plane crashes that changed his life.
What was this old, homeless man doing here?
An act of kindness
The old man carried a plastic sack and a brown drink carrier with four compartments, two filled and two empty.
He settled in at the table adjacent to mine, here at this Starbucks near my house where I’d chosen to write my Sunday newsletter.
In that moment, I wanted to say something. I wanted to do something. I hadn’t touched my coffee yet, so I thought about handing it to him. I thought about giving him some cash, or even asking him if he needed a ride somewhere. I didn’t.
Because while I was thinking big, someone else was acting small.
From out of my peripheral vision flashed one of the baristas, a young man. He carried a grande cup with a top on it and one of those green stoppers sticking out. He set it on the table in front of the old man.
The young man nodded. His lips curled up about fifteen degrees at each end, hinting at a smile. Then he nodded, turned, and flashed back to the service counter.
The old man smiled with his eyes. He placed the cup into his drink carrier.
For the next several minutes, I contemplated what to write about in my newsletter. The old man thumbed through a newspaper, rearranged his three cups, and sorted through a few items in his plastic bag.
Then that peripheral flash again.
This time, the young barista carried a clear plastic glass. It was filled with ice water, a straw protruding from the top.
This time, I noticed eye contact between the two. This young man, his entire life ahead of him; this old man, his life gone by. There was mutual respect in their momentary gaze. There was dignity.
The young man returned. The old man rearranged. Soon he stood up, adjusted the stained bottom of his shirt, and he grabbed his drink container and bag.
Then the old man walked out. And it seemed to me that his shoulders were a little more back, his chest was a little more out, and he was holding his head just a little bit higher than when he walked in.
Small acts sometimes have bigger impacts than we can ever know.
Greatness does not require great acts
I don’t know why the young barista brought two drinks to the old man. I have no idea if this is a regular occurrence, or if this is the first time the old man set foot in this Starbucks.
But I do know, having had a front row seat, that this was a small act that made a big difference.
This was an example of greatness, as defined by two of the greatest servant-leaders in world history … but it wasn’t a “great” act. Not if we define great as “of an extent, amount, or intensity considerably above the normal or average.”
It was just one human being giving a paper cup, a plastic cup, and $0.08 worth of liquid (estimated cost basis) to another human being. It was quick, it cost little. There is nothing “great” about that. Maybe you could say that most people in the young barista’s shoes wouldn’t have done it, and that makes it “above the average,” but the act itself could have been carried out by any able-bodied adult.
And yet it made such a difference.
Who knows where the old man went next, but I do know he went in that direction with more purpose in his gait than he walked in with. Having your human dignity confirmed by another human has a way of doing that.
This young barista had acted as Dr. King said he wanted to be remembered:
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
This young barista made a great impact with a small act.
There are opportunities all around us, all the time, to do the same.
Pride in purpose, humility in deed
In response to Tuesday’s post about greatness, Demian Farnworth emailed me the following:
When we think of serving as doing something great our instinct is want to serve on a global, grand scale (pride). But it starts in our home. To those closest to us.
He’s right. It’s human nature to want our actions to have great impact and our lives to have great, expansive meaning. That’s the pull of our pride.
But humility means understanding our relation to others, and to the world, and not thinking we are capable of more than we are.
And frankly, none of us are really capable of all that much in any single moment. You can’t move a massive boulder with a single push. Neither can I. All we are capable of are small acts — small acts, in the moment, right where are, that impact another person in a positive way.
That impact can become great, and our lives can begin to take on great meaning, when we do those small acts consistently and their cumulative impact start to add up.
But if our pride compels us to sit around waiting for the perfect opportunity to make a great impact, we can lose sight of the small, daily acts we should be doing:
- Thanking someone for a nice deed and making him feel appreciated, which might just make him more likely to do another nice deed for someone else.
- Thinking about what a co-worker might need from you and doing it before she even have to ask, making her day easier and reminding her she’s got the power of a team in her corner.
- Bringing a man without means a coffee and a water, without making him ask and without making a big deal about it … in the process reminding him he’s human and that he matters.
This is how we lead great lives, because this is the essence of serving: thinking big but acting small.
As we discussed on Tuesday, there is nothing wrong with ambition or wanting to be a “drum major.” You have this ambition for a reason. Good — lots of good — can come from it. As Demian also said in his email to me, we should see this as a purpose, not a burden.
Instead of seeking to be served, seek to serve and give your life for others.
Yes, Primility is a mindset for achieving what we love and are capable of, but I do believe it also carries with it a responsibility to achieve great impact without forgetting that we are still no more important than the person to our right or to our left.
And if I think big, and if you think big, and if we both act small day after day after day together, then we can move that massive boulder.
And once it starts rolling, it’ll be damn near impossible to stop.
Flickr Creative Commons Image via Fouquier.