Several years ago I was invited to attend a local Rotary meeting to determine if I would enjoy becoming a member. At that first meeting, members shared good things happening in the community and within their families. It was interesting to get to know these leaders in the community and to better understand what they believed to be important enough to give voice to during “Happy Bucks.” Also at that first meeting, a Rotarian from another club gave a program about her recent travels to Niger, Africa to help dig a well so the village could access clean water without walking three miles one way to the closest stream. I’m embarrassed to say that that was the first time I’d really considered how fortunate we are in this country to turn on the tap and have clean water whenever we need it; hearing her experience ignited a spark in me. Within a year, I was traveling to Africa with fellow Rotarians (Clearly, I decided to join) to help in ways I could not have imagined only one year earlier.
We never know what will ignite the spark within us, or whether our actions will serve as the spark to ignite the fire among those whose lives we touch. But, I’ve seen it in every organization and within many individuals hundreds of times; when the spark is ignited, only a small breeze to fan the flames is required for people to catch fire, and as one person catches fire their warmth ignites the heart-fires of others. The butterfly effect is real!
Many years ago, when I directed 4-H Camp at age 19 we used to sing the song “It only takes a spark to get a fire going; and, soon all those around will warm up to its glowing!” At the time I didn’t realize the powerful potential of that one little spark, but now I recognize it as a fundamental quest in my life and a part of the secret to “Awakening" to our potential.
So let’s explore how to build a life that enables you to not only ignite your spark, but kindle that fire within. One of the habits that many of us fall into is taking the path of least resistance. Without even being aware, we migrate toward others with similar perspectives, backgrounds and interests. Even though we talk a great deal about the value of diversity, most of us have to make an effort to surround ourselves with people who look, think and feel differently than we do. In his book One Man’s America, vastly influential commentator George Will suggests we human beings have a tendency to ‘stay in our lanes’ in America and furthermore, we are then bolstered by surrounding ourselves with those who think and move in the same direction. We become protective of ‘our lane’ and might even develop phobic tendencies that prevent us from even considering perspectives that come from the other lane. If you only watch FOX News and find it useful as a news source, you may only see the world in a particular way that appeals to you; likewise, if you only watch MSNBC and it appeals to you as a news source, you may have a dramatically different perspective on the state of the world. It’s the same world; our lens’ are simply different.
When my son was in middle school, I encouraged him to attend a national youth gathering which members of our church planned to attend. In my zest to sell him on the idea, I indicated that it would be life-changing! What a mistake. He responded immediately, “Well Mom, I like my life. I don’t want to my life to change.”
If we were all deeply honest, most of us don’t relish change; even when we are miserable due to our circumstances, they are still ‘our circumstances’ and we believe we have some sense of understanding and therefore, control. Awakening to our own potential means stepping out and sometimes stepping out into a completely unknown circumstance.
In graduate school I was fortunate to study finance and live in London for several months; had I not taken that leap of faith to step outside my comfort zone, I might not appreciate the vast cultural differences between two democratic, English speaking countries - the US and England. How has that served me? How has that served the world? Because of the powerful lessons learned while living abroad, our family hosted exchange students in our home in rural America and exposed our children to different cultures; I’m unafraid when befriending and engaging those raised in different cultures in my workplace and community. Do these things matter? Perhaps. Maybe the ripple effect of my actions served as a spark for someone else. Maybe. Just last year, a young woman in our community who was of Indian decent and a practicing Hindu explored with me her idea to bring people together of varying faiths to discover their similarities instead of focus on their differences. In her view, the bullying she had experienced from others in her high school was fueled by ignorance; in our community, most had not been encouraged to understand someone different than themselves. This young woman who was wise beyond her years is now a student at Harvard; I’m confident she will be a force for good the world throughout her life. The spark in her life was discrimination and bullying, yet she is driven by her experiences and convictions to discover peaceful solutions to problems in the world by bringing people together and discovering shared understanding.
But, you might be saying, I’m not inclined to go to Harvard; in fact, that’s not really in my path. And I’m not inclined to live abroad – too far outside ‘my lane.’ Change, exploration and adventure is fine for other people, but I like the fish I’m swimming with and my bowl of water is just fine; it’s fine.
Whatever your path, be it cluttered by your inability to pay your rent without pain each month, spend enough time with your children or grandchildren, feel like you are in a dead-end job, or frustrated by a chronic illness or a recent accident that requires you to change course - whatever your path or current circumstances, seek out something that just might ignite your spark. Staying in your lane is unlikely to create the friction needed to produce a spark. Have fun, though; don’t expect this article, or this vacation, or this new baby, or this marriage or any big life event to be instantaneously transformative; they may, but they may not prove to be the spark that ignites your flame. Just don’t give up.
As you’ve probably already discovered, John Lennon was right. “Life happens while you are busy making other plans!” Perhaps you simply need to notice. Find your spark. “Seek and you shall find,” Jesus told us. Go for it...ignite your spark!