When my husband and I picked up our son—let’s call him Buster—from the train station this past weekend, he threw his gear into the car and proclaimed a state of near-starvation. We invited him to put off eating and join us at an Eagle Scout Court of Honor for a young man named Danny.
Six years earlier, Buster had returned from a week at scout camp telling us about “this cute little kid, Danny, who just joined a few months ago—he’s shy but you can tell how badly he wants to be part of it.” Three years after that, Danny had been an impressive all-day worker at Buster’s Eagle Project, where Buster called him “exceptional,” and predicted that Danny, too, would reach Eagle. So, it was unsurprising that Buster willingly delayed dinner for this “brother scout.”
Danny, with 52 merit badges on his sash and a scouting resume that truly was exceptional, even for an Eagle, began his prepared remarks by saying, “I didn’t know he would be here today, but that just makes this speech all the better, because I am going to begin by telling you that one of the biggest reasons I stand before you tonight as an Eagle is because of Buster.”
On the last night of camp, Buster and Mick did a great Blues Brothers routine with black suits and fedoras and when it was over, Buster gave me his sunglasses. It sounds silly, but that meant so much to me; it meant that someone I really admired thought I totally belonged where he was. I’ve brought those cheap sunglasses back to camp with me, every year since; they’ve reminded me of who and what I wanted to become—the guy who makes everyone else feel welcome and at ease, and is kind to the kids who hang back.
He went on to tell of a night last summer when he was feeling out of sorts and went back early to his tent.
And as I sat there, I could hear the kids at the campfire, singing all the songs I’d taught them; they were the same songs Buster had taught me, and it was amazing to think about the influence that we have on people’s lives, how simply things are passed along, and how unusual it is to actually get to see your influence on others.”
Over supper, Buster admitted feeling humbled by the speech, and also a bit awestruck. “When I handed Danny those sunglasses, I had no idea it would mean so much to him. We don’t realize how sometimes the smallest things we do can have such a huge impact on someone else.”
The following day, came news of the sudden passing of an assistant scoutmaster and friend. A genial man, he had participated in scouting for his stepson but his authority was never invested with ego, and that gave him a light touch with the kids, who uniformly liked and respected him. I recalled a pancake breakfast where he held steady at the griddle, content to stir and serve. “Let others be the central commanders,” he joked while keeping up a steady stream of encouraging banter to the worn-out waiters.
He left scouting sometime after his son made Eagle, but when our elder son asked him to come out of retirement to emcee his Court of Honor, this scoutmaster couldn’t say no. He put himself at the service of anyone who asked for help, even when illness began to make each day a challenge. We had last seen him a year ago, at a fund-raiser honoring another scoutmaster. Though much thinner, he still carried himself lightly, still exuded warmth and good humor, still rose to honor someone else, and to serve when asked, by saying “a few words.”
At his wake, the rooms were overflowing with scoutmasters and their wives, and with the scouts who kept coming, and coming; young men who had long-since left behind their sashes and medals and the external trappings of the Boy Scouts, but who carried within them the values they had learned and internalized though the influence of this man, who would be surprised to hear that his small jokes and warm demeanor had modeled another side of manhood for so many. Our elder son was not the only scout to travel from out-of-state—in torrential rains—to pay his respects for an hour or so, and to tell a grieving wife and son, “Yes, he mattered. His life mattered to me.”
As his family endures their graveside goodbye this morning, perhaps those words will be the consoling epitaph that upholds them when the world begins to spin: He mattered. His life mattered to me. To many.
That, after all, is what our human hearts long for: to know that we were seen by someone, and that we mattered. Too often we equate that sort of affirmation with fame, and perhaps that is why our culture is so loaded down with vulgar reality shows and mediocre contests; people want to know they have been noticed and, if not loved, at least looked at. Becoming famous for being famous carries with it an illusion of having an impact, of “making a difference.”
But if the self-serving, banal fame of the Snookies and the Kardashians, whose names are distressingly to the forefront of our awareness for no discernable reason, matters, it may be in measures more cautionary than lasting. Their influence cannot—should not—have a deeper influence on the world than the example of one ordinary, not-famous man flipping his 400th pancake while reassuring a young scout who has spilled maple syrup all over himself, or one ordinary, not-famous 15 year-old handing a pair of cheap sunglasses to a shy kid who wants to belong.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.