Just stand there shining

The Gay Head Lighthouse, Aquinnah, Martha's Vineyard Massachusetts, September 2012

The Gay Head Lighthouse, Aquinnah, Martha’s Vineyard Massachusetts, September 2012

“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” — Anne Lamott

I don’t want to sound paranoid, but people are watching us. They watch us in grocery store checkout lines, in doctors’ waiting rooms, or sitting at the wheel at a stoplight in gridlock. They overhear our cell phone conversations on the subway and at ball games. And they see how we act and react, in big and small dramas, every day of our lives.

Some of these people are strangers, and some are our children, spouses or friends. Some of them are doing okay, but many of them are caught in heartaches and crises of their own. It’s sobering to realize that we have countless tiny chances every day to make life a bit brighter for almost everyone we meet. A smile, a kind word, patience with someone who’s obviously struggling, even if that person is our waitress or cashier or obnoxious co-worker.

One recent morning I went down to the hospital cafeteria to have breakfast.  It was the day after Jeff’s portal vein embolization, and the doctors were pleased with how things went. We had begun to feel hopeful again.  The woman who served my eggs greeted me with a beaming smile and asked how I was doing. “Better than I was yesterday,” I replied with obvious happiness. You would have thought I was her best friend as she broke into an even bigger smile and said, “I’m so glad you are feeling better! Praise God that you are better today!” I’m not sure exactly why, but that woman’s kindness and sincerity supercharged my already happy mood. And if my mood had been low, I feel certain she would have had something equally encouraging to say.

The troubles of the world can be overwhelming. Sometimes we get confused into thinking that fixing global problems requires the authority of the President or the Pope or a greedy CEO somewhere. We may feel that we are insignificant and powerless, unable to make anything better. When we feel that way, we are normal and typical, but incorrect. The positive changes we make may never be featured on the evening news, or even in somebody’s yearly holiday letter.  But that makes them no less real. I know this is so because of all the times when people who had no idea they were changing my mood, my thinking or my life have given me encouragement, compassion or simple courtesy just when I needed it most, when I was on some undefined edge, about to snap or lose heart.

Today, I hope you will celebrate the opportunity to spread cheer and good will on an ordinary day. You don’t have to go out searching for ways to make the world better. Just stand where you are, shining.

See also

Live faithfully a hidden life

This post was originally published seven years ago today. The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.


  1. Good morning, Julia!
    Wow! What a picture Lamott’s words have put into my head! If that particular lighthouse went running all over the island – wow, what a mess that would be! Folks would have to run, too, to keep from being trampled!
    Your quote has served as quite the cautionary tale. It would be awful to run folks over, in some frenzied attempt to be helpful!
    Speaking of frenzy, I’ve been making face masks in my “spare time” (still working 32 hours per week, plus doing home repairs and trying to put in a garden). No wonder Patrick stays out of my way when he can!

    • Susan, are you working via computer with your New England gig? Or does your company have offices in Minnesota? I think you told me once, but I couldn’t remember. I wonder whether they’ll allow you the option of staying in Minnesota even after everything opens back up…assuming you would even want to?

      • Hi Julia, yes, I’m in Minnesota with a computer from Boston.
        I think that working from home will become more prevalent, now that so many more people have tried it. There is better accountability through the online meeting resources, and this quarantine has forced many to learn to use these programs that we didn’t all feel comfortable with, previously.

        • Susan, even though there are a lot of funny memes out there about working from home, I think it does have the potential to be more productive, and at the same time, more difficult. When I started my hybrid PhD program, my friend Renee warned me that online studies (legitimate ones, anyway) are much harder, and she was certainly right. For example, the normal, in-person class discussion of a particular question was altered to 1. Require each student to post their own answers to each question; and 2. post an ORIGINAL (new ideas) comment in response to each and every other student’s answers. That’s at a minimum; you were also encouraged to comment on the comments. For a class of ten or more, what might have been a one-hour session with only a few people speaking suddenly transformed into hours of reading and writing. I don’t know whether you’ve experienced a similar increase in actual work time required, but there’s no doubt that there is total accountability in an online environment, if the people monitoring your work know you well enough to recognize when it’s you. I did note that in the graduate program I described, the professors had their interns actually reading all those unlimited discussions. I didn’t like online classes at all. In the classroom the professors are at least present with you one hour per week. If I ever go back to graduate school, I don’t think I’d want online studies. I think too much online interaction, if it comes at the expense of face to face meetings, has a negative effect on mental health.

          • Hi Julia,
            I had noticed in the past that teamwork situations are much more productive if the team members have at least met in person. I supposed it’s harder to ignore someone you’ve actually met.
            I had hoped that this relatively well known and accepted phenomena would help me get a trip to Ireland to work with the sterilization validation team there, but they were so good at our virtual team meetings that I felt it would really be a stretch to say that I needed to be there.
            I guess we will soon see how your theory plays out for online versus face to face interaction. As an INTJ, we sincerely dislike phone calls, and for many years that has been a problem for me. But, even now I am becoming more comfortable on online meetings. For whatever reason, a quick video chat is much more comfortable for me than a phone call has ever been.

            • I think the video is more comfortable because we can see people’s faces. With a phone call, you never really even know whether the person is actually listening to you, and you have no facial expressions to guide you. Online meetings have several advantages (a huge one being no travel required) but oddly, the advantages may also be disadvantages, as it may be that much harder for us to tolerate traffic, airport inconveniences, etc. when and if we ever do go back to whatever passes for “normal.”

              • It’s true that I’m already irritated by others on the road, even though the roads are less crowded than they have been in the past. It seems people could space themselves out better … but I digress….
                I may be more irritated because I’m afraid crowded roads may mean more people aren’t taking the coronavirus seriously. For example, today I’m going shopping for probably the first time this month, and the cars zooming past my house are already making me nervous. Oh, and I’m in Minnesota.

                • From what I’ve read, the virus hasn’t hit as hard in Minnesota compared to coastal urban areas, so perhaps that’s a factor. Having said that, I’ve been quite surprised at how steady the traffic has remained, here in Virginia. I only see it when I go to the grocery store, or on my trips between York and NoVa, but I’ve actually been encouraged to see it. It would be way creepier to be the only car on the road, like something out of an episode of The Twilight Zone. Since I’m always driving myself when I see these cars, I can hardly be annoyed at them for being out too. I totally agree with those who fear the “remedy is worse than the disease” aspects of the response to this virus. I’ve seen, up close and personal during Jeff’s battle against cancer, the fearful damage wrought by the “friendly fire” of what we think of as modern medicine. Despite our impressive progress as a species, what we don’t know will always outweigh what we know. We are always shooting in the dark when we seek to defend ourselves against disease. Which speaks to your earlier comment about how appropriate a trait humility would be, during this entire scenario. I am sick of so many pundits second-guessing other people’s best efforts, and using this situation as a chance to push politics from either side. As if any of them, if they were in charge, could do better. So easy to be an armchair quarterback!

  2. Lydia

    Thank you so much for your words. They made me think of the children’s song, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” My children are so good at being kind to others. To me, that’s the best gift you can give to another person. The apostle Paul on his letter to the Ephesians expresses it well when he says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32

    • Lydia, I am so happy that your children practice kindness. It seems so rare nowadays. That’s a lovely verse from Ephesians, isn’t it? Deceptively simple because so often it’s not easy at all. Thanks for being here, and for sharing your thoughts!

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