Learning to Write Small

by on October 1, 2020 · 5 comments

in Ocean Beach

By Joni Halpern

Perhaps it is because our culture is so enamored of celebrity.  Perhaps it is because we inadvertently have become anonymous in a country of 330 million people, in a world of seven billion, in a cyber-universe that takes our pulse from moment to moment and buries our heartbeat in an aggregated identity that can be sold by the chunk or the sliver.

No matter the reason, we seem to awaken each day with a new hope that the meaning of our lives will become clear to others, that they will notice us, lift us from obscurity and send us into viral fame.  We strive to be trend-setters, influencers, commentators.  We want our voices to be heard, our faces to be seen, our statements to be quoted, our actions to be commended.

We want evidence that we – unique and alone – make a difference in this world.

In the process of joining the strife to make a lasting footprint among our fellow human beings, we have leaped over the more mundane tasks that seem, well, thankless.  Shall we vote?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  One vote doesn’t matter, especially if it takes more than a little effort.  Shall we give a dollar to the homeless woman on the street?  Probably not.  It doesn’t solve the problem of homelessness, and it might be used for something we ourselves would not think worthy.  Shall we reach out to our elderly neighbor to see if he needs an errand run?  Perhaps not.  He has grown kids who are supposed to care about him.  Shall we walk a precinct, join a letter-writing campaign, or spend some time listening to those who say they are aggrieved?  Not really.  It takes time away from things that matter to us – things that might make us matter to millions of others.

This search for acknowledgement that our lives matter is not a pursuit linked to age or capacity.  Persons of every age and ability walk past small choices each day in search of more larger, more gratifying opportunities.  What we want, we tell ourselves, is to make a difference we can see.  But we can’t seem to see it unless many others do.

If we have a position, a title, a fortune, a niche of recognition, a following; if our phone rings constantly, and people seek our opinion, our comments, our reactions; if we are sought after, mentioned, quoted, named, referred to – these accomplishments, we believe, are the hallmarks of people who make a difference.  These are the marks of people who write large on the big screen of life.

I knew a woman once who was 21 when she found herself upside down in the passenger seat of a car whose driver had fallen asleep at the wheel and overturned the vehicle.  Next thing she knew, she was waking up in an ICU as a male nurse inserted a tampon into her vagina.  She was unable to move from the neck down.  She had always been a person who knew she was destined to make a difference.  Vibrant personality, limitless energy, a bounding joyful voice, personal charisma.  If anyone could have gone viral in those days, it would have been she.

But now she found herself struggling to speak above a whisper, asking for a drink of water or a spoonful of soup, waiting for a friend to drop by when a caregiver failed to show and she needed to be hoisted from her wheelchair into her bed.  She thought she had lost the chance to make a difference in life.  She could no longer make the bold strokes on the big screen of life she had always imagined she would make.

But perhaps in those hours of darkness in the nursing home, listening to the agonizing breathing of a comatose elderly roommate, or perhaps when she patiently worked to master the techniques of whatever tasks she could do for herself, she came to the conclusion that her life could matter.  She could make difference.  She could learn to write small.

Over the next 30 years, she wrote the book on the true meaning of the word “empowerment.”  It wasn’t the common meaning given by nonprofits and academics and agencies that serve people who are excluded from the mainstream.  It wasn’t the meaning given by people who pontificate about how great our society will be when everyone stands on his or her own two feet without asking help from anyone.  This was a woman who had to ask help for everything, so “empowerment” was something that she had to convey to others without lifting a finger.  Imagine.

She started by listening to the persons with whom she came in contact – the caregivers, the friends from college, the doctors, rehab specialists, clergy, family members.  She did not pry, but she noticed the sound of their voices, the timbre, the tone.  She got so she could hear when tears were hiding behind their laughter.  She asked gently about things and the people they cared about.  She was not afraid of silence; she waited for their answers.  She never divulged their secrets or talked behind their backs.  They learned to trust her.  They often came to see her on days they were not assigned or expected.

She noticed how people acted, whether they entered her room with an energetic step or their actions betrayed fatigue or worry.  She made them turn on music she said was for her, but really, it was music she thought would give them peace or solace or make them bubble with joy.  She talked about the books she had listened to, or the little truisms and stories she had picked up from others.  She made people laugh, she gave them courage, she forced them to see what she saw in them  — the beauty and power in their capacity to ease the suffering of others by the simplest act:  a sip of water to parched lips, a bite of food to someone who had waited too long to be fed, a soft cloth to the forehead of someone who was sweating in the heat.

She made them unafraid to handle her body.  She could talk a terrified visitor through the use of the Hoyer lift.  She could make people laugh while teaching them to drain her leg bag.  She could look you in the eye with a sideways glance and convince you of the goodness within you, of your capacity to achieve anything, of the importance of every little act of decency and kindness, of truth and courage, you ever contemplated doing.

And just to burn the lesson into your brain, and take away any excuses that false humility might lend to your underperformance, she demonstrated exactly what she meant.  She spent 20 years getting a bachelor’s and master’s degree and a doctorate.  When her field work requirement came due, she found a way to change regulations so she and subsequent doctoral candidates could leave the country to complete their required studies without losing Medicaid.  She talked medical supply companies into donating wheelchairs and assistive devices to take with her when she did her field study in Nicaragua, where many people had lost mobility in the civil war.

She took that skill of engaging in the day-to-day care and concern of others into the classroom and became an instructor whose teaching was celebrated each year by students at a renowned state university.

Her name is no longer known to any but those whom she touched.  But there are many of us who can never forget her.  Few even know where she is buried.  But she lives in our hearts, for she taught us that if you really want your life to make a difference, you need to learn how to write small.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Morgan Machen October 1, 2020 at 3:15 pm

That was beautiful. Thank you.


Joni Halpern October 2, 2020 at 1:28 pm

Thank you for reading, Morgan.


Angie October 1, 2020 at 3:45 pm

Yes! If we’d all stop asking what’s in it for us, and ask instead “how can I help?” the world would be a kinder place.
We have opportunities to make a difference in every life we touch. Sometimes just a smile or a hello can change someone’s day.

Writing small… I like that.


Joni Halpern October 2, 2020 at 1:28 pm

Angie, you couldn’t be more correct.


Sam Calvano October 5, 2020 at 3:14 pm

Nice article Joni.


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