Chance Encounters and Butterfly Wings
Early in my career, I wrote and produced a television documentary that got some mail. While most of the viewers were seeking additional information or requesting addresses of people in the film, one letter really caught my attention. It stated, “Your film changed my life.” Apparently, the viewer had been so inspired by the main character’s story that she had finally summoned the courage to leave a deadbeat, abusive husband and reclaim her life. She credited the film with giving her that courage.
On another occasion, way back in high school, I recall being befriended by one of the school’s outsiders (I’ll call him Eric). Eric came from a large family that lived in a sprawling great house with an upstairs for the kids that resembled a convent dormitory. Understandably, Eric was a bit rough around the edges, poorly dressed and competing for parental attention with 10 other siblings, many of whom were drifting into petty crime. I knew none of this when Eric first invited me over to his house. He had indicated that he would be outside. I remember arriving at the house and being unable to find him. Given that he was a bit of a grease monkey and enjoyed tinkering with cars, I decided to look for him in the garage. Sure enough, that’s exactly where I found him. Oddly, he seemed surprised, even a little embarrassed to see me. Thinking back, I recall that the garage was empty, despite a large number of beat-up cars sitting forlornly in the drive. However, I thought nothing of this at the time and Eric proceeded to invite me in for a glass of pop. Although we were truly the odd couple in every conceivable way, we did strike up a friendship, perhaps based on mutual outsider status. During that time, I got to know his large family and he also met my parents on many occasions.
Years later, and before she developed Alzheimer’s, my mother told me something about Eric that came as a shock. Apparently, he had once confided in her about why he had taken so much interest in me. Originally, he had forgotten he had even invited me over. He had been extremely depressed that day, convinced that his life was worthless. On impulse, he decided to hang himself in the garage and had strung up some rope around the automatic door mechanism only moments before I arrived. If I hadn’t knocked on the garage door that afternoon at just that critical moment, it is likely that Eric would have died.
Both my TV viewer’s experience and Eric’s story illustrate the power of random acts. Conditioned as we are by celebrities basking in the spotlight, it is easy to assume our own footprint in this life is insignificant. In fact, we can probably never know the full impact of our actions (good or bad) on the lives of others. Although the letter from the TV viewer indicated that my film had changed her life, she will likely never know that her letter also changed mine. It was partly her note that convinced me to stay with documentary, a decision that allowed me to travel the world, meet wonderful people, do something of value and develop a body of work that eventually led to a parallel career in education. Perhaps, like Eric, in my own moments of occasional despair, I have ultimately come to appreciate that we achieve more in this life than we can ever know and that even in our darkest moments, we are never entirely alone.