When Richard Reeves, now a graying pundit but then a youngreporter, asked the new governor of California to spell out an agenda, young Jerry Brown mumbled: "Reduce the sum of human misery a bit, I guess," then added: "Do you think that what you or I do will really make a difference in the long run?"
Mr. Reeves seems to have found this charming after the stuffed-shirt politician-speak he usually has to copy into his notebook.
Mr. Brown gets his perspective from Zen meditation, and no doubt in the context of the infinite cosmos, the strivings of politicians and journalists are pretty futile.
On the other hand, what you or I do can make a great deal of difference in the lives of each other. Ask any happy lover or resentful child. Frank Capra made a movie about the difference a small-town banker made in the lives of the men and women of his community. And the whole "Points of Light" idea, endlessly (and probably justly) bashed by cynics as President Bush's abdication of government responsibility for social conditions, nevertheless attracts many Americans who like to think they can make a difference.
Lately I've been writing the history of my church, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary. It's a fascinating study of people who made a difference. The Rev. George Morrison started a boarding school in Baltimore County's Long Green Valley in 1830. He was a circuit-riding Presbyterian who served two church congregations in addition to conducting two services a week at his school for his students and nearby farmer families.
This school congregation was chartered in 1842 after Morrison's death and became the present Chestnut Grove Presbyterian Church. Its building came about because of Henry Carroll, a Roman Catholic but no denominational chauvinist. Not only did he donate land to the Presbyterians, but when Immanuel-Glencoe Church was being built, Carroll sent men and teams to haul stones for the Episcopalians.
Some people who made a difference were the members of the Ladies Mite Society, who were the financial backbone of the church for many years. Their fairs, oyster suppers and other events supported the pastor's salary, church maintenance and mission giving. And that's not all. A church minute laconically records that in 1900, "the ladies were given permission to continue maintaining the horse pens."
A 70-year member, church treasurer and Sunday School teacher was Joshua Jessop. Before the turn of the century he led a band in the Long Green area, and on Sunday mornings he liked to back up the organ with his cornet.
Unfortunately, he was deaf. It is written: "His cornet was loud and very often the organ and the choir finished somewhat ahead of Cousin Joshua." It was decided that the pastor should call on the eccentric virtuoso and, "if possible without giving offense, secure the discontinuance of the use of the cornet."
Diplomacy failed. The pastor's visit in 1901, as Jerry Brown might have predicted, didn't make any difference in the long run. Forty years later, when Joshua Jessop was over 80, a church elder undertook the "most embarrassing chore to persuade him to give up his efforts when we bought a modern organ."
J. Jackson Smith, who died in 1967, made a difference in many lives as a "master greeter" who knew every name and shook every hand. As a banker, he made a difference with his money, but he didn't just write checks. He felt that one way for his church to reach out to others was to educate its members for religious vocations. His scholarship fund has contributed to the training of two pastors, two missionaries and a music director.
For a time in the 1970s the church set up a program with the downtown Knox Community Center to bring inner-city children to the countryside one day a week for swimming, pony rides,
games, crafts and lunch. Did it do any good? Well, racial and urban problems are still with us. But the church got a letter about a year ago from a mother whose sons were in the program for several summers. Now they are grown up, healthy, employed, with families of their own, and she wanted to thank us. She thought the summer program had made a difference in the lives of two boys.
Every church history has similar stories. Every Little League coach and Scout leader touches lives. And every school teacher. Just this week my 7th-grade daughter was musing that if she grows up to be a teacher she wants to teach like Mrs. X.
I won't name Mrs. X, or the school; let all 7th-grade teachers puff their chests. What they or you or I do does matter in the long run.
Hal Piper is editor of the Opinion/Commentary page.