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We May Never Know the Inestimable Value of What We Do

We May Never Know the Inestimable Value of Our Efforts Svenwerk


Jim Schroeder - published on 04/09/14

So don’t give up - even if things seem bleak.

On the morning of April 12th, 1980, Terry Fox dipped his right leg in the Atlantic Ocean.  He filled up two water bottles.  One he hoped to dump into the Pacific Ocean at the end of his journey.  One he hoped to keep as a souvenir.

Three years earlier, his left leg had been amputated after he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in his knee.  He had undergone months and months of painful chemotherapy, and had become begrudged that little was being done in his country to address the real problem of cancer.  So he set out, in his unusual hop-step gait, to run a marathon a day across Canada until he could see the sun set on the Pacific Ocean.  But he never made it.  One hundred and thirty-nine days and 3,339 miles later, he retired from the run after finding out that the cancer had spread to his lungs.  Less than a year later, he died.

On the day of his death, in the House of Commons, Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, read the following statement. "It occurs very rarely in the life of a nation that the courageous spirit of one person unites all people in the celebration of his life and in the mourning of his death … We do not think of him as one who was defeated by misfortune but as one who inspired us with the example of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity."

Today, the annual Terry Fox run held across the world has raised over $500 million dollars in cancer research, and his memory lives on in countless public forums and memorials.  Even in failure, even in death, his effort had great value.

And so it is for us in our daily lives.  In whatever roles that we may have, each of our daily efforts, however insignificant they may seem, have tremendous opportunity for value.  But when we do not see the value of our efforts, we often become despairing.

As parents, it is easy for this to happen.  Sometimes it is because the outcomes seem poor.  Sometimes it is because we read articles or blogs that may leave us feeling depressed that the advice being given seems at odds with what we have been doing, or what we have done.  We then catastrophize that our mistakes will lead to greater burdens for our kids.  At times, even as I strive to write what I believe to be true, I too feel depressed that what I say may not mean much, or may lead others to feel blue about what they have done.  

Our kids can feel the same way, too, when they do not see fruits of their labor.  In a star-absorbed society focused so much on peak performance and unworldly abilities, it is easy to see why our children become increasingly anxious if their outcomes do not measure up to what they perceive as success.

It is why that one of the most researched based protocols for addressing anxiety, the Coping Cat developed Philip Kendall, uses a simple lesson in the section that focuses on results and rewards.  It starts with a story about the character baking a cake for someone that did not turn out well, but who nonetheless found some satisfaction in this attempt.  It then asks the child to imagine a time that they tried something that didn’t work out perfectly, and then talk about how they could reward themselves (internally) for their effort.

Midst all of our searches for direction in our life, one reality holds true even as we meander along our way.  It is that our efforts, our attempts to do right by ourselves and others, have value beyond what we will know.  As I have reflected on growing up, and on the actions of many parents, it seems evident that this is true.  I think about my own parents’ sacrifices.  I think about the many days and nights that they tended to my siblings and I when we were sick, or when our homework needed to be done.  I think about the awkward conversations that they knew were important.  I think about the money they saved for braces, and high school, and college.  I think about their restrictions, their punishments, their encouragement, their continued comments to this day.  And when I do, something interesting happens, especially as I have grown older.  The images blur and the words fade.  What remains in my heart and in my mind is that they tried—really, really tried—to teach us the right way.  

A little ways back, I was speaking to an adolescent and her mother.  Her swimming career was coming to an end after more than a decade in the pool, yet she remained unsettled by the fact that she had never reached the goals that she had set for herself.  Others regarded her career as a great success.  But she continued talking about cutting time in her last meet, not in excitement at the possibility this would occur, but in deep disappointment if it did not.  As I sat in the room talking with her and her mom, I found myself saying that her effort had great value even as I knew she disagreed.  I explained that the value could come not just from within (if allowed), but certainly was recognized by those who had known her well.  As I said this, I looked over, and could see the tears welling up in her mother’s eyes.  Her mother began to describe just how proud she had been of her daughter for all the early morning awakenings and the hours spent in the pool.  Although her mother wished that the outcomes would be great for her, the pride she felt for her daughter had little to do with her performance.  What matter is that she had tried, really hard, again and again.  

So if we find ourselves despairing that our efforts have been in vain, we must remind ourselves of a few critical things.

One, much of the world’s faith practices, that consisting of works and service, are based on the belief that our effort has tremendous worth, here and in another life. For our Catholic faith, it has always been about imperfect effort in the pursuit of perfection.

Two, we have no guarantee that what we do is right or great.  Yet we do have a guarantee that if we don’t try, nothing good will ever come through us.

Finally, as life ebbs from watching our children grow to our parents die, we must believe that what we do in this life matters—not because we will ever truly know the outcome of our ways, but because we will come to see the value in the effort of those we know.

Jim Schroeder, PhD,is a pediatric psychologist at St. Mary’s Center for Children in Evansville, Indiana.

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