Beware of Eagles in Brazil
Written February, 2012 by Gus Vandermeeren.
Delivered at Sunday Service, Sugarloaf Congregation of Unitarian
Universalists, February 19, 2012
I remember I was about 5 years old when I first heard the story of
St. Francis of Assisi. I was very impressed that St. Francis refuted
his life of nobility, wealth and comfort, and chose instead to give
away all that he could and live a life of service to the poor.
Although meant to be a story of inspiration, that story, as well as
other similar stories of great people who devoted their entire life to
a just cause, created within me a great deal of turmoil, confusion
and self-doubt, even at that young age.
Recognizing that there are a lot of injustices and wrongs in the
world, I began to ask myself "shouldn't I too give up everything I
have and devote all my time and resources to the betterment of
But I didn't ask it too often. In fact I spent much of the next 50
years since then trying NOT to consider it... but feeling guilty for
I avoided the question because deep down I was convinced that the
answer was "yes", and if I allowed myself to fully understand and
believe that it was so, then I would either have to try to be like St.
Frances, Mother Theresa, Albert Schweitzer, or any number of such
who have lived exemplary lives, or face my guilt at being too weak
to do the right thing.
So here I am, 50-something years old. I haven't devoted my life to a
great cause; I haven't started any world-shaking movements; I'm
not a great political or spiritual leader. What have I done? What
am I doing with my life? Does my life even matter in the great
scheme of things?
It has taken a great deal of time and thought, but I believe the
answer is "yes"--A great big resounding "Absolutely Yes!".
So what brought me to this conclusion?
There are many things, but chief among them are a better
understanding and greater appreciation of three concepts:
* Every one is restricted to working within the frame defined by
his or her own gifts and limitations. You can’t do what you
* Everything is connected, which means everything I do affects
someone or something.
* "GREAT" people come in both "famous" and "anonymous"
Let me elaborate a bit on each of these:
* Every one is restricted to working within the frame defined by
his or her own gifts and limitations.
You’d think this is pretty obvious, and yet we sometimes forget this,
blaming ourselves or others for failing to do something, without
understanding that it’s just not doable (or not so easy).
In some areas it’s a bit easier to judge the level of talent than in
others: I’m pretty sure I’m never going to paint a masterpiece,
bring people to tears with the beauty of my singing, win a weight-
lifting competition, or solve a never-before-solved mathematics
But there are many areas of competency that are much harder to
measure, things like:
- Different aspects of intelligence, like the ability to
o follow logic trails
- The gift of being able to see the big picture
- The ability to make people feel accepted, at ease, comfortable
- Ability to accurately pick up on emotions
- Emotional control (eg, anger/frustration control)
- Emotional maturity
- Ability to focus and drill down
- Judgment / experience
All of us differ in the degree to which we have these things. And
this affects what we can and cannot be successful at.
Some of these things can be learned or improved upon with time.
But others cannot. In any event, at any given time the set of things
that any one of us is capable of is determined by our current
physical, mental, and emotional talents and limitations.
The passing of time has given me a better understanding of what
my own gifts and limitations are. Could I be a great leader even if I
devoted all my time and energies to it? I doubt it very much. I
simply don’t have a good enough memory or sufficient management
or leadership skills.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating an “I can’t do it”
attitude. I suspect most of us have at one time or another
discovered a talent that we didn’t think we had. And these
discoveries can come at any age. We should push our boundaries in
order to discover what we CAN do! But at the same time we have
to be realistic and be gentle both to ourselves and others,
understanding that sometimes things are simply out of reach.
1) Everything is connected.
None of us live alone. We are all connected, living together in the
great ocean of life. Everything I do leaves a large or small ripple
that slowly or quickly moves across that ocean.
It ripples out into other people’s lives, in small ways or large
affecting how they think and what they do. I do a kindness to
someone who as a result becomes ever-so-slightly more loving and
does a kindness to someone else who… and so on and so forth.
It’s kind of like the weather. A butterfly flaps its wings in japan…
which causes a teeny-tiny change in the flow of air over a leaf,
which causes that leaf to bend the other way, which makes a
change in the wind, which … on and on and on… until eventually
we end up with a tornado in Kansas. Which brings me to the
somewhat enigmatic title of my sermon… If a butterfly in Japan
can cause a tornado in Kansas, imagine what havoc an eagle in
Brazil could cause.
Okay, I know that’s kind of hokie, and that a tornado is not exactly
a desirable outcome. But the thing to take away from it is that we
should never discount the small things. Small things can have a
These effects stretch both backward and forward in time. Does the
effect of my action ever really stop? I don’t think so. It truly is like
a ripple, only in an infinitely large body of water. With time and
distance the wave does get lower, but it never dies out totally. And
as it gets lower it also gets wider, touching more and more people.
And so of course my life has meaning. Even a small action can have
an effect that can last forever. Not only does my life have meaning,
but in some sense I am immortal.
Also consider that we don’t always know HOW we will affect others.
Something that may seem small and insignificant to one person
may in fact touch deeply and be long remembered by someone else.
In an episode of National Public Radio’s “This I believe”, George
Mardikian tells this story about his immigration to America:
“When I entered the shower baths at Ellis Island, I found plenty of
soap and water. I used them freely because it seemed to me that I
was washing away all the hatreds and prejudices of the old world.
As I stepped out of the shower and came face to face with a guard in
uniform, he actually SMILED at me. The smile of a stranger may
seem to be a fleeting, insignificant moment to others, but I
remember it vividly because it set the mood for my new life. It was
perhaps an omen of the joy and friendship I was to find”
A single fleeting smile! Such a small thing, and yet it was
remembered decades later as a very significant thing to the person
on the receiving end.
In another “This I believe” episode titled “The connection between
strangers”, Miles Goodwin recalled the following:
” I had just been mustered out of the army after completing my
tour of duty in Vietnam. I was a twenty-three-year-old army
veteran on a plane from Oakland, California, returning home to
I had been warned about the hostility many of our fellow
countrymen felt toward returning Nam vets at that time. There
were no hometown parades for us when we came home from that
I sat, in uniform, in a window seat, chain smoking and avoiding
eye contact with my fellow passengers. No one was sitting in the
seat next to me, which added to my isolation. A young girl
suddenly appeared in the aisle. She smiled and without a word
timidly handed me a magazine. I accepted her offering… her quiet
“welcome home.” All I could say was, “Thank you.”. I do not know
where she sat down or who she was with because just after
accepting the magazine from her I turned to the window and wept.
Her small gesture of compassion was the first I had experienced in
a long time.”
I’m sure that girl had no idea how strongly her small act of
kindness would affect this stranger.
Another thing to consider is “where do great leaders come from?”
Who inspired them? Often it’s the actions of a small number of
people, sometimes just one, that taught them the lessons they
needed, that inspired them to be who they are. You see this often
in the memoirs of great people.
And also never forget that no great things are ever accomplished by
one person working in isolation. Mother Theresa single-handedly
helped thousands of desperately poor people. But it’s through the
establishment of her order, and the volunteer effort and financial
contributions of thousands of others that her outreach eventually
helped hundreds of thousands. I am in no way diminishing her
achievements. I suspect she would have been the first to give credit
to the great number of unknown people without whose efforts she
could not have achieved what she did.
In yet another “This I believe” story, notice how Jody Williams,
founding coordinator of the International Campaign to End Land
Mines” gives credit to the thousands who make her organization’s
“If I have any power as an individual, it’s because I work with other
individuals in countries all over the world. We are ordinary
people… thousands who have worked together to bring about
extraordinary change. The landmine campaign is not just about
landmines—it’s about the power of individuals…
I believe that if enough ordinary people back up our desire for a
better world with action, we can, in fact, accomplish absolutely
The last thing that I’ve learned is that…
2) "GREAT" people come in both "famous" and "anonymous" flavors,
with the latter being much under-appreciated.
There are, in every community, a lot of “great” people. The single
mother who works her fingers to the bone to provide for her family;
The older man who spends all of his time caring for his ill wife; The
family who takes in difficult foster children that no one else wants;
These are great people, doing great things. But they will not go
down in history. No one will canonize them. Soon enough they will
But the ripples they started, the examples they set, these DO get
noticed and remembered, and they DO have an effect on the world.
Their lives have meaning.
They matter, just as I do, just as you do. Let’s all challenge
ourselves, within the framework of our gifts, limitations and
responsibilities, to do what we can to spread positive ripples of
kindness, beauty, hope, joy, love… as far and as wide as possible.