There is a propensity to forget the gifts we’ve been given from one birthday or Christmas to the next. Whatever it was for which we simply couldn’t wait can be long forgotten in a matter of weeks, yet, how someone made us feel years earlier tends never to be forgotten. The late Maya Angelou said it best: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
We tend not to forget the negative things people say to us. It is even easy to forget small acts of kindness shown to us and instead hang on to acts of cruelty. Think of the tragedies around the world — the Manchester massacre in England, for example, will eventually have its share of personal heroic stories. What will remain forever cemented in our minds, however, will be the horror felt for those involved in the tragedy.
I’m a high school teacher chaplain. One of the best parts of my position is visiting with a student or groups of students and listening to the stories they share about their lives. Not long ago I had a conversation with a group of Grade 12 students, and they declared that the high school experience, whether positive or negative, will leave an indelible mark on them, perhaps more so than experiences at any other juncture in life. For most of them the experience will be positive. For others, the high school experience will be best forgotten.
I asked my visitors how they would want to be remembered, challenging them to think and consider carefully, because their last word, action, behaviour, and treatment of someone else will not easily be forgotten.
In the 1990 movie Flatliners, five medical students experiment with medically induced death (“flatlining”) in order to discover what is beyond life. After some time in “death,” they are resuscitated. This experiment wasn’t positive as they discovered the degree of damage their cruelty had on others earlier in their younger lives. Those experiences haunt them with regret, and after being resuscitated, the medical students try, in vain, to repair the past damage with those they hurt. Unfortunately their efforts weren’t well-received.
There are lessons in how our small acts of cruelty can leave their effects long after the events have passed. Jesus taught that the kingdom is like a mustard seed. In Jesus’ time the mustard seed was considered the smallest of seeds, yet this small seed could produce a large tree. In other words, the small, seemingly unimportant things, in the long run, are the big things.
We are urged to think big and to be careless about small things played out on the smaller stage of our personal lives — in our families, in our schools, in our workplaces and even in our neighbourhoods. We can even delude ourselves into thinking that what we do and say now should have little to no consequence to anyone later on, because we can excuse ourselves as being young and immature.
The little insults, the betrayals, the little acts of selfishness — these are deemed to be insignificant. But in the end, the only thing we may remember from a given year is some small mustard seed of cruelty that was sown.
Planting small seeds of kindness and acceptance, compassion and gentleness, grow the biggest trees and produce the most life-protecting shade. I challenged my students to be careful in the kinds of seeds they plant today, and to think about the kind of harvest they expect to reap in the years ahead. Perhaps this is a lesson for all of us to take seriously.
Saretsky is a teacher and chaplain at Holy Cross High School in Saskatoon. He and his wife, Norma, have two children, Nathan and Jenna.