Famous names are in the headlines every day. A few years ago, Yasser Arafat’s name dominated the media for weeks while the world speculated about his impending death. His influence was unmistakable. But now that he has passed from the scene, the long-term impact of his life may eventually turn out to be relatively minor — if his policies of terrorism and violence are ultimately abandoned for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Arafat was one of the world’s great movers and shakers, as have been many others before him. Given life’s transient nature, however, I began to wonder just how much influence any of us really has.
Henry David Thoreau’s famous quotation, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” got me thinking about the influence the average person has on the world around him. Not much perhaps, when compared with some of the great names of history. Jesus, Mohammad, the pope, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King Jr., Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Stalin, Hitler, FDR, Churchill, Ronald Reagan, and now Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush are just some who come to mind.
The list is endless. And it could be argued that such famous people change the world in some significant way, through wars and conquest, scientific advances, or by creating great cultural, social and religious change. Pick a famous name, any name, and a case can undoubtedly be made for its importance on the world stage, for good or ill.
But, is the impact of such people really that much greater than those who “lead lives of quiet desperation?” On the surface, the answer may seem obvious: of course, they have. They have all caused great things to happen and brought about political, scientific, economic or social change.
If you think about it, however, we all know many people who have also had an enormous impact on others. Simply by getting up every day, plodding through their routines, many of the people around us who “lead lives of quiet desperation” also change the world around them — through their participation at schools, involvement in charities, helping their neighbors, caring for a sick parent or child.
“Lives of quiet desperation” may be the hallmark of much of humanity, living in conditions of poverty and want, but that is not the case for most Americans. Most middle-class Americans work with purpose: to raise and educate their children, help their neighbors and their community, provide for their families and their retirement. And, they accomplish far more than is often recognized or credited.
Think about the neighbor who works tirelessly for local schools, helping teachers, raising money, attending athletic contests, plays and other events to support his or her child and the other children, guiding their moral and religious training.
Or, local citizens who volunteer to work for any number of community, school, church or other nonprofit groups, and the contributions they make to improve the lives of their friends and neighbors.
Or, the friend, neighbor or relative who may quietly struggle with the daily responsibility of caring for a parent, spouse or child, who sometimes suffer with a serious health problem: Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy, MS, or any number of other afflictions. To me, they are all heroes. I have known and witnessed many such heroes for decades, who often carry seemingly never-ending burdens without complaint.
Far from lives of “quiet desperation,” the lives of such people are filled with purpose and accomplishment, often providing inspiration to everyone who comes into contact with them.
In the America I know, “lives of quiet desperation” are often steadfast lives of quiet purpose and accomplishment. Look around you. Take a moment to celebrate your family members, friends and neighbors, who so often make things happen in our daily lives, without fanfare, and often without recognition or reward.
Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his own blog, Opinionfest.com.