It was a sad sign of a spring that might have been. On the short walk from my home to the center of the small market town where I live, I passed by some open common ground, neatly grassed over and faithfully maintained by our local council. A solitary sapling, recently planted there, had been brutally shattered, and a sign had been pinned to the wreckage by an outraged resident, which read: “Proud of our local community?” Obviously I was not the first to flinch in almost physical pain at the sight of this bent and splintered little tree, hacked down before its life had really begun. An act of mindless vandalism, almost certainly perpetrated by just a handful of people using their power to spoil something for everyone. How easily “one” could bring destruction into what the many are trying to create.
But another story surfaced in my memory—a story I heard from a commuter who uses a toll road daily about a phenomenon he had witnessed at the toll booths. Every morning, he said, there would be very short lines at five of the six toll booths, and a very long line at the sixth. Why would anyone join a long line, he wondered, when there were five much shorter lines available? The answer was the man inside that sixth toll booth. Without fail, he had a friendly, personal greeting for everyone who passed by his booth. “How are you doing today?” “How’s the family?” And even, in the case of my informant, the wholly unexpected inquiry: “What happened to your glasses?” My friend explained that even his family had not noticed that he had lost his glasses, but this stranger in the toll booth had not only noticed, but expressed his concern. Such was the power of this “one” that harassed drivers would line up, adding five or ten minutes to their commute, simply to be refreshed by this man’s friendly words and authentic kindness. It is easy, it appears, for just one person to bring springs of new life into a world that routine stress has rendered so toxic.
A long time ago, during the recession before last, my own family experienced redundancy, and we, along with millions of others, had to find new ways forward. I still treasure a greeting card we received at that time from a friend in the Czech Republic. It read: “I am only one, but I am one. There is little I can do, but what I can do, I will do.”
At the end of the Easter season, we celebrated the memory of how the power and the spirit of one man exploded into the boundless, unstoppable flow of the Holy Spirit, which has energized human hearts and empowered human action ever since. Physicists and experts on chaos theory tell us that when things spiral down into disequilibrium, and it looks as if everything is going into meltdown and annihilation, then a mysterious force which they call a “strange attractor” comes into play, and causes a whole new order to emerge—springing from the old, yet also radically new. I cannot help thinking of Jesus as “the strange attractor” who longs to turn breakdown—both personal and global—into an unimaginable reshaping and revisioning—and who also calls us to add the power of our own energy and creativity to the whirling dance of transformation.
The miracle is that the “strange attractor” is not just a concept of theoretical physics. It can surprise you just about anywhere. It can be the catalyst for radical change in situations that seem irremediably hopeless. We meet situations like that every day on our television screens and our neighborhood sidewalks. What can “one” do in the face of such impossible odds?
During World War II, it is reported, a battered contingent of defeated allied prisoners of war was being paraded through a German town. The streets were lined with onlookers, some with triumph on their faces, others with compassion. The prisoners were starving and utterly exhausted, their eyes cast down in despair. A silence fell. Then a woman broke through, an ordinary German housewife, and thrust a loaf of bread into one prisoner’s hands before fleeing back to her kitchen. She took the risk of compassionate action. She stepped out of line. But she also started a movement. Gradually others overcame their fears and brought out food for the captives. One woman’s action caused thousands to be fed.
Goodness is contagious. The power of one is always more than we can imagine, and “one,” multiplied by millions of us and directed toward the greater good of all creation, amounts to a very great deal indeed.