Go out Like a Light

Recently, I saw a clip from the movie, "About Schmidt." Although I haven’t seen the movie and can’t endorse it, I understand that Jack Nicholson stars as Warren Schmidt, a man leading a life of quiet desperation. He retired as vice president of an insurance company, but as he reflects on his life, he is plagued by the realization that it has been meaningless.

Then Warren sponsors a 6-year-old orphan named Ndugu in Tanzania. He faithfully sends letters along with $22 a month. In his letters Warren shares his inner angst:

"I know we're all pretty small in the scheme of things, and I guess the best you can hope for is to make some kind of difference. What difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me? I am weak, and I am a failure. There's just no getting around it. Real soon I will die. Maybe 20 years—maybe tomorrow—it doesn't matter. Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies, it is as though I never existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of.

"Hope things are fine with you.

"Yours truly, Warren Schmidt."

The movie ends with a scene of Warren coming home to an empty house—an apt metaphor for his empty life. He enters his home with an armload of junk mail. Then he spots a letter from the orphanage.

It’s from a nun who works where Ndugu lives. She explains that Ndugu cannot read or write but that he thinks of Warren every day and hopes he is happy. Enclosed is a picture drawn by Ndugu for Warren—two stick people smiling and holding hands. Warren is overcome with emotion as he realizes that he has indeed made a difference.

Warren is no different than you or me, is he? Deep within every human spirit is a desire to make a difference. God created us with this soul hunger for purpose. He wired every child with a desire to impact the world. Then Jesus came to this earth and challenged us to live on purpose when He said, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

I like Malcolm Muggeridge’s take on the text:

“'I am the light of the world,' the founder of the Christian religion said. What a stupendous phrase! And how particularly marvelous today, when one is conscious of so much darkness in the world! 'Let your light shine before men,' he exhorted us. You know, sometimes … someone asks me what I most want, what I should most like to do in the little that remains of my life, and I always nowadays truthfully answer—and it is truthful—I should like my light to shine, even if only very fitfully, like a match struck in a dark, cavernous night and then flickering out.”*

In a world full of shadows, sometimes it is difficult to believe that we can make a difference. Our lights can seem small compared to the overwhelming darkness that engulfs us: terrorism, abortions, carjacking, graffiti, date rape, deadbeat dads, crack cocaine … But take heart; in a thousand dim arenas of need around the world, the light still shines in the darkness—and the darkness cannot extinguish it.

So go, and do the light thing.

* Muggeridge, M. (1969). Jesus rediscovered. New York: Doubleday.

February 01, 2006 / Fresh Start