I was taught many years ago by a wise priest that we can either react or respond to life’s circumstances. And how we respond will determine the outcome of those circumstances, positive or negative. If we react to life’s problems, then we are not in control. When we respond, we are in control.
Carl was 86 years old. His church announced that the garden behind the pastor’s house needed someone to care for it. So Carl volunteered to be the keeper of the garden. Just about every day he was back there, watering or weeding or tilling that little garden. This was the kind of neighborhood that had changed over the years. It was a very rough, inner-city neighborhood, dominated by gangs and violence. It was where Carl lived.
One day Carl was working in the garden, when three young hoodlums spotted him, taunted him, ridiculed him, and pushed him around. Carl never said anything, he simply smiled. As it was a hot afternoon, he gently asked if they would like a drink from his garden hose.
They laughed at him and pushed him down into the mud. Then they relieved him of his retirement watch and his wallet, leaving him on the ground and laughing as they continued down the street. The pastor saw the incident and rushed over to help Carl up. The old man picked up his hose, still gushing water, and continued his work.
“What are you doing?” asked the pastor.
Carl answered, “Aw, they’re just punks. Maybe they’ll wise up some day. I’m not going to let them keep me from the garden.” A compassionate and gentle man, Carl was not prone to violence.
Something similar happened another time. Carl was again watering the garden when the young men spotted him. They insulted and derided him. He stayed quiet and calm and quietly continued his work. Once again, he mentioned it was a hot afternoon and offered them a cold drink. They thought it was funny. They took the hose and this time doused Carl. They hosed him from head to foot. Then they left, still laughing. Dripping wet, the old man continued to
water his garden.
Some weeks later, when Carl was again working in the garden, he heard a voice behind him. It startled him. As he turned around, he lost his footing and he fell back into a small evergreen shrub. Though he was unhurt, he had a bad leg and struggled to get up. Carl looked up and recognized the leader of the gang that abused him and prepared for the worst.
This time the man said, “I’m not here to hurt you, old man. Here, let me help you up,” and he extended his hand. “I’ve got something for you.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a crumpled paper bag. Carl reached in and found his retirement watch and his wallet. The young man continued, “It’s all there, even the money.”
Carl looked through the wallet until he found the picture of his wife, who had been dead for several years. She was much younger, then. He asked, “Why are you doing this?”
The young man said, “I haven’t been able to sleep very well, lately. I’ve been thinking about you, all these times we’ve come over here, and the things that we’ve said to you, and you never said anything back to us. The way we’ve treated you and you never treated us badly. I guess I feel bad about that, and watching you, I know I can do better, and I think I will do better.” He continued, “I guess this is just my way of saying I’m sorry.”
Carl never saw that young man again. He passed away that year about a week after Christmas. The pastor said something at the funeral about doing the best you can with your life. Make your garden as beautiful as you can, he said. Of course, he was talking about our lives, rather than actual gardens. A young man who sat in the back of the church by himself heard those words.
When spring arrived, the pastor decided to put another announcement on the bulletin board asking for a volunteer to take care of what was now called Carl’s garden. In a few days, the young man from the funeral stopped by. The pastor recognized the gang leader, who said, “I believe that’s my job, if you’ll have me. I looked up to Carl. I respected him. I think, because of him, I am now becoming a very different person. I’d like to take over that garden.”
So he got the job of caring for Carl’s garden. He worked on making some of those changes in his life, too. He went back to school. He graduated and then eventually got married. He landed a job with real responsibility. Every Summer he cared for the garden. He watered it, weeded it, tilled it.
After a few years, that church changed pastors. One day the young man came into the new pastor’s office and announced, “I’m going to have to give up my job of caring for Carl’s garden. You see, we’ve just had a new baby boy, and I want to spend a lot of time with him this summer.”
The pastor smiled and said, “Oh, that’s wonderful. That’s marvelous! Congratulations. What are you going to name him?”
The man said, “Carl. I think we’ll call him Carl.”
Mahatma Gandhi put it well:
“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
It always begins with one person.