We’ve probably all heard this story. President John F. Kennedy visited NASA in 1962 and came across a janitor holding a mop. He came up to the man and asked him what he did for NASA, to which the janitor replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon!”
When I first heard this story many years ago, it was at a corporate seminar. With such a profound message, everyone around me seemed to beam with pride as they realized their part in the unified purpose of the company for which we worked. But the odd duck that I am felt differently. Is this all I am worth? Is this all I could ever be? It seemed all superficial and meaningless to be working for something that only cares about growing in the name of profit. While everyone else in that room were inspired, I was dispirited and disheartened. I wanted to be part of something that truly matters.
Fast forward a few years later and I saw the meaning of the janitor’s statement in a different light—in a much deeper, more profound, more meaningful light. We are all connected like the strands of an intricately beautiful web—but how and why? My mind grappled for a way to understand and appreciate my place in the universal picture of life. Where do I exactly fit in all of this? And how does following my own path matter in this connectedness?
We’re all part of something—a family, school, neighborhood, club, country, political group, etc.—and on a bigger scale, we are part of humanity. We are also part of everything that inhabits this planet—humans, animals, plants, and minerals alike and there are invisible energetic systems that keep everything working so that we may all live.
On a smaller scale, it is easy to determine what our role is. You’re someone’s child or sibling, the treasurer of your local club, office manager at your company, or team captain of your sports team. But as the context grows, our role becomes a bit more blurred and generic, oftentimes unclear and undefined.
Just because we can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there
Everything—absolutely everything—in life is connected. How do our individual roles fit in the grander, more complex setting that we don’t even fully understand? Where do we stand in this complicated life on this planet in the midst of a vast universe?
NOVA’s documentary film Earth from Space demonstrated how earth is “shaped by forces more dynamic and intertwined than we ever imagined” as discovered by scientists through a network of satellites orbiting above the earth. Through the satellites, processes in the earth system that cannot be perceived by the human eye are made visible for scientists to understand how all life on earth is interconnected.
For example, a single lightning strike during a thunderstorm at a small town in Ohio is nothing but local. It is a part of a chain of more than three million lightning strikes that occur all around the globe each day. When a lightning bolt is formed within the thunderclouds and strikes, it splits the nitrogen in the air which then bonds with oxygen to produce nitrate—a nutrient that is essential to the survival of all living things on earth, including humans—which is transported to the soil by the rain, absorbed by the plants, which are then consumed by animals and humans.
This is just a small part of the entire system. Every grain of sand, every seed, and every drop of rain does its part in keeping everything working and to keep everything and everyone alive. All the elements do their own thing without question, without hesitation and without fail to keep the whole system balanced and functioning the way it should.
Most of us know how we, as humans, affect this otherwise perfect environmental system and its many natural cycles. Our individual processes and behavior create a collective impact. A dollar will not be a dollar if you’re missing a single cent. If this is the case, do we even doubt that in a grander scheme, what we do individually has a greater impact to the whole? And not just on a three-dimensional, planetary level but also in a nonphysical way?
The power of individuality
To further understand how individual roles matter to the bigger picture, we can use a simple analogy to help remind us why we need to stay true to our own Self and stay on our own path at all times.
Imagine we’re all part of a grand orchestra playing a great symphony. We each have our specific instrument to play the piece of music designated for us. We use our natural-born gifts, talents and unique skills to help us do that. We need to focus on our individual part so that we could play in the symphony beautifully.
If we’re too busy criticizing or telling others what they need to do with their own instruments and how to play their music, we are not fulfilling our own role and causing disharmony instead. If someone makes a mistake, struggles or needs some help, the best thing to do is to lead by example—inspiring them by continuing to play and focusing on our own part. If we stop playing to tell that person off or because we feel the need to hold them by the hand, we put our own process on hold as well. That makes it two people who are not doing their part.
How many of us have put our own needs aside and stymied our own growth for the sake of others? We don’t realize that rising to the occasion is the best thing we could do to help them. If we live up to our full potential, we are in a better position to inspire, motivate and lend a hand. The best way to lift up others is by lifting up ourselves first.
Many of us have been accustomed to telling others what to do—to “put in our two cents.” But even if our intentions are good, we need to realize that by doing this, we are not only interfering in someone else’s path, we are also disrupting our own. Picture a pianist who stops playing to tell a flutist how to play and what to play with it. Does that make sense at all?
The same is true if we keep on wanting to have a different instrument and play someone else’s music instead of focusing and appreciating what was given to us. We have what we have for a reason and the more we resist this, the longer it would take for us to fulfill our role in the orchestra. The sooner we appreciate and use what we have, the sooner we learn, improve and become an effective member of the entire group.
The ease and grace of being fully aligned
Now, imagine you look up to someone who’s been doing his part exceedingly well. You want to emulate their progress. That person’s instrument happens to be, say, the trumpet. But yours, on the other hand, is the violin. No matter how much of an expert that person is, what they teach you would not make sense to you nor would it be useful to you. Can you imagine applying his blowing techniques to play your violin? It might just leave you utterly confused and frustrated. Not that what he’s teaching you is not real or valid, it’s just that your truth is different than theirs.
In real life, we don’t always see or know our talents, gifts and purpose. Without that to guide us, advice and guidance from even the best of experts, teachers, coaches or mentors might work against our own progress. Knowing what makes our personal path unique will not only help us focus on fulfilling our own role, but it will also lead us to someone who is truly aligned to guide us.
The more we put all our energy and resources to playing our individual musical piece with our designated instruments the way we are born to, the better the symphony sounds. The more we focus on ourselves, the more we play in true harmony with everybody else. That is why ‘being you’ truly matters in a much grander, albeit invisible, scheme of life.