More than a decade ago, I mentored some kids through Covenant House, the largest privately funded agency in the United states that provides shelter, food, immediate crisis care, and an array of other services to homeless youth.
By far my favorite kid was Tyrone, someone who in other circumstances should absolutely have been studying philosophy and literature at Princeton, rather than being abandoned by his family and figuring out how to survive on the streets of NYC.
I think of Ty often, and not just because an artist friend wanted to do portraits of all sorts of couples / partners / friendships and asked us to pose. I gave him the small sum she offered us as a modeling fee, and later bought the painting from her.
Here it is in my old LES loft; it still hangs over my sofa today.
The biggest surprise of my working with Ty was something that the administrator of the program predicted right when we started:
"By far the most important thing you can do for him, way beyond any advice or connections or anything else, is simply to be a steady presence in his life. Just knowing that you are there, that you are a constant, is the most valuable thing you can offer"
And sure enough, after making great strides and then mysteriously and suddenly vanishing (more than once), when Ty did resurface, that's pretty much exactly what he said to me.
Even when he wasn't reaching out, somehow knowing that I was a stable island he could swim back to meant everything to him.
This, however, often runs contrary to many of my impulses about how I should be making a contribution.
I'm really good at solving problems.
I'm an expert consultant for other people's creative projects.
And I do make the bulk of my living from teaching, which is, more or less, often telling people what to do.
(I mean, not really, but you know what I mean... )
Anyway, it's a major paradigm shift to think that sometimes, it's not so much what we say or do, but simply our basic presence, our very availability, that's our most valuable contribution.
Lately, there's been a great deal of drama regarding an old college friend, someone I'm very close to who now lives in Europe.
A very bad situation (created by seemingly bad choices) has revealed itself and it's really unclear what to do.
(It's even unclear if anything can, in fact, be done.)
Perhaps the most helpful thing anyone's said to me about it comes from my wise friend Joshua who, after listening me discuss all the options but not finding anything that worked to "solve the problem," offered:
"Sometimes you've got to be a lighthouse
and not the coast guard."
Unfortunately, however, I really, really want to be the Coast Guard.
This evokes a similar favorite quote from the great Anne Lamott, reminding me why this might just be so valuable:
"Lighthouses don't go running all over an island
looking for boats to save;
they just stand there shining."
And I get that, I really do, realizing that perhaps we overvalue our Coast Guard-like rescues and problem solving abilities, and undervalue the impact of shining, of simply allowing our best selves to be revealed.
That is, in fact, the way I made the greatest contribution towards Ty.
Nothing I said was as important of the fact that I was quietly in the background, shining in my own life.
As I realize more and more in this current challenging situation, I might have to let go completely and embrace the role of a light house, I'm reminded of another favorite quote, the famous Marianne Williamson passage:
"We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
I find that heartening, realizing as Benjamin Franklin did, that lighthouses are definitely more helpful than churches.
And maybe, sometimes they are even more helpful than the Coast Guard for the shipwrecked.
Namaste for Now,
P.S. This week's call with about simplifying your financial life in 2018 with Stefan Whitwell was awesome.
If you missed it or want a replay, you can listen
(but speed through to 17 minutes in when the waiting room music stops!). Feel free to share.