by Father Mark Goldasich
Never discount the power of small actions!
I scribbled these words in the margin of a story that one of my parishioners sent me. The “story” was actually a reprint of a letter sent to the corporate offices of the Union Pacific Railroad in 2008.
Apparently back on Aug. 29 of that year, a collision occurred in Medford, Okla., between a UP train and a propane tanker, after the tanker had failed to yield at a crossing. Killed in this tragic accident were the locomotive’s engineer and its conductor.
The letter came from a man who happened to be in Medford on business that particular day. This person had once lived in the town and owned property adjacent to the railroad tracks. He wrote: “I cannot count the number of times when, while waiting to cross the tracks or while working in the adjacent field, a friendly wave from the locomotive would greet me along with the resoundingly loud horn. The train would lumber on past to destinations unknown, leaving only a pleasant little reminder of the childhood fascination that all boys have about trains.”
On that Aug. 29, the letter writer had gone outside to get something from his car. As he was heading back into the office, preoccupied with other things, a horn tooted loudly. Jerked from his reverie, the man said that he “paused and turned to see the familiar sight of a friendly, comforting wave from the right side of the locomotive. Instinctively, I waved back, my spirits again boosted by someone I did not know, and continued on my way.”
Moments later was that terrible accident. The man then explains why he wrote the letter: “I do not know with which man I exchanged waves that day. . . . I do know that if it had been my family member lost so tragically and suddenly, it would be comforting to know that one of the last gestures of my loved one had such a lasting positive effect on a complete stranger. You are all in my prayers.”
Yes, there is power in small actions.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that letter above over the past few days. Those familiar with the Kansas City music and theater scene know that we just lost a real treasure. Karen Errington — with her powerful voice, expressive face and infectious humor — had been a mainstay on local stages for the past 20 years. If you saw her once, you remembered her.
Karen died of breast cancer on March 1 at the age of 49. I’d just been to a benefit for her on Feb. 25 at the American Heartland Theatre in Kansas City, Mo. That night, an elite group of her extremely talented friends gave a sold-out crowd a once-in-a-lifetime performance. Organizers hoped to raise $10,000. It didn’t happen: They raised double that . . . and then some.
So, what’s the connection between the Union Pacific letter and this benefit for Karen Errington? Well, back on New Year’s Eve in 2009, Karen performed in a musical revue with three other singers. After the show, she was standing on stage. I wanted to go up and talk to her but, quite frankly, I was a bit chicken. Being such a star, I didn’t think that a compliment from some “nobody” in the audience would really matter all that much to Karen. After all, I’d applauded, right? And, I figured, I’ll be seeing her for years and years to come, and it’s late and I should be getting home, etc.
Happily, I dismissed those thoughts, swallowed my nervousness and walked right up to Karen. I introduced myself and told her how much I enjoyed all of the performances I’d seen her in. I thanked her for sharing her talents. She broke into a smile and then thanked me for being there and taking the time to come up and compliment her. She could not have been more gracious. I left the theater that night with a warm, contented feeling.
I never got another chance to chat with her. I’m so glad today that I took advantage of that unexpected New Year’s Eve opportunity.
How many times in our lives do we pass up those small chances to make life brighter for someone? Why do we hesitate to compliment, to thank, or to encourage one another?
I think that St. Thérèse of Lisieux got it right: Holiness comes, not so much in big heroic actions, but in the little things that we do for others out of love. A compliment, a wave, a hug or a smile may not seem like much at the time, but their effects can be powerful — on both the receiver and the giver. And, even though many times we do get another chance to act on some missed opportunity to do good, why wait and gamble?
This coming Lent, don’t be shy. Live boldly. Encourage and help others in any way you can, as often as you can.
And, since the last show I saw Karen in was “1776,” maybe we can all ponder these words of Thomas Jefferson: “He does most in God’s great world who does his best in his own little world.”