Helping a Grieving Person: Articles

Footprints and Fingerprints

A question crossed my mind the other day. As I go through life, am I leaving footprints or fingerprints? 

All of us would like to leave a mark on our world. We long to be able to say at the end of our lives, that we have made a difference. But we soon recognize we need help to achieve that. All of us long for someone to walk with us, to teach us, to challenge and encourage us, to believe in us. We desire friends we can trust, relationships we can depend on, a mentor to guide us, someone to love us for who and what we are.

In 2008, Simon Whitfield won the silver medal in the triathlon at the Beijing Olympic Games. In the same event, Colin Jenkins came in a distant last, yet his effort is written in the annals of sport’s history. For Jenkins played a critical role in helping Whitfield win his second Olympic medal.

A strong swimmer and cyclist, Canada had named Jenkins to the 2008 Olympic squad with a plan to designate him as Simon Whitfield’s “domestique”. His job was simple – to put his own ambitions aside and help put Whitfield back on the Olympic podium. He dedicated himself to the task wholeheartedly helping Whitfield to maintain pace over the 1.5-kilometre swim course, and repeatedly chased down the breakaways on the 40-kilometre cycling segment with the former Olympic champion drafting behind. Exhausted by the effort of the first two stages to help his friend, Jenkins faded in the final run but it will be remembered as the greatest 50th-place finish ever.

Who are the people who made a difference in your life? Who left a fingerprint on your life that will make a difference for generations to come?

Who took an interest in you and what you were doing; who was patient and helpful when we needed some encouragement or direction the most. Was it a parent, a music teacher or football coach, an employer or a colleague?

The good news is that all of us leave a mark as we go through life. The challenge is whether that imprint is a footprint or a fingerprint. People who leave footprints are those who walk all over you; who don’t seem to care whose toes they step on or who gets trampled as they march to the beat of their own drummer.

But you can’t leave a fingerprint without giving someone a hand. When you touch someone’s life you leave a fingerprint that will not only influence that person, but which will make a difference to everyone whom THEIR life touches as well.

Some of us have been touched and some have been trampled, and maybe most have experienced both. Which did we prefer? Which should lead us to ask the question, “how do I want to make a difference?” Would I like to be remembered for my footprints or my fingerprints … as a mentor, or as a tormentor?

Mentoring is first mentioned in Homer`s epic poem, The Odyssey. Mentor was the son of Alcumus who, in his old age, became the trusted friend of King Odysseus. When Odysseus left for the Trojan War, he placed Mentor in charge of his household affairs and his son, Telemachus. For years, while his father was away at war, Telemachus was trained by Mentor in all the ways a father should equip a son for life.

Put simply, a mentor is a “being” who affects someone else’s “doing.” Most successful people have benefitted from having a mentor. It occurs when people enter a relationship which encourages growth in all areas and stages of life. It actually happens every day because our words and actions affect other people all the time, whether for good or for ill.

Erik Erickson identified several stages of adult development, which, simplified, equates to three stages: 

  1. The Age of Learning. Usually between ages 16 – 30, the crucial question is “Who am I”. The search for identity is a quest to understand who we are and how life works. To do this, young people need models that they can observe safely. Often this is a parent. It is a great blessing to develop a relationship with a grown child, matured from the angst of the teenage years. But it can also be found in other models such as teachers, coaches and other influential people who offer perspective, affirmation and feedback as the young adult deals with many inner life issues. Included in this are issues of intimacy where we learn how we can get along with others and develop trusting and loving relationships.
  1. The Age of Contribution. Usually from ages 30 – 50, the crucial question is “What am I doing with my life?” People in this stage of life are usually busier, experiencing more pressure and responsibilities. It is also the time for “mid-life crisis” when we re-evaluate everything from a “is that all there is” perspective. The danger is that an individual in this stage may dabble in many different things and not make a significant contribution anywhere, even coming to a plateau in their growth. Mentoring is vital in this stage as the person may need coaching and direction in their strong desire to figure out their purpose in life.
  1. Age of Investment. Usually ages 50+, the crucial question is “In whom or what should I invest myself.” Baby boomers today have arrived at this very critical part in their life journey. Having reached the peak of their potential the person will want to turn their focus on “finishing well” and to leaving a lasting legacy or imprint. But this can be a vibrant time of growth and learning, or a time of sliding into despair and defeat. This more than any other is a time of change, whether in family dynamics, job challenges, retirement or health issues.

Someone once said, “A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could.” When my boys were younger, they and another dozen teenagers from our church youth group went on a hike. We came to a roaring waterfall at a gorge that was thirty or forty feet deep. Fortunately, a tree which was 60 feet long and 4 or more feet in diameter had fallen across the gorge making a convenient natural bridge. Looking back it may not have been the smartest thing to do, but we decided to cross the tree trunk to get to the other side. My friend and fellow youth leader, Jim, made it over easily … the log was 4 feet wide after all, My boys and several others followed, not daring to look down at the rushing torrent below. I waited to be the last one over to make sure everyone was OK.

Then Marny set out. She gingerly made her way about halfway across and then dropped to her knees. “I can’t do this,” she screamed. ‘I’m going back.”

It was a terrifying moment. A nasty fall could have resulted in a serious injury or worse. We were worried about her safety, but no amount of coaxing could convince her that it was easier to come forward than to go back. She looked as if she was frozen to the spot.

It was then that Jim stepped forward. “Marny, look at me,” he yelled above the roaring waterfall. “Don’t look anywhere but right at me.” Then lowering his voice but speaking loudly enough for her to hear, he spoke to her. “Listen, have I ever asked anything of you that you couldn’t handle?”

“N-n-n-oo,” she replied. “But I’m scared”

“I know Marny” said Jim reassuringly. “But you can do this. You’ve made it this far, now all you have to do is come a little farther. You can do it.”

“But I don’t think I can make it the rest of the way” she cried.

“Okay” said Jim, “how be I meet you halfway and crawl back with you. You just start crawling towards me and I will be there to help you.”

We all watched with bated breath as Jim crawled out to where Marny had become frozen in fear, and after a few more encouraging words, he turned on the log and together they made their way to safety.

Who do you know that is “stuck on a log?” Who do you know that could use YOUR encouragement and help? Could it be a child or grandchild; a family member; a colleague or some young person looking to get into the business or trying to find some direction in life?

The legacy we leave will be a footprint or fingerprint that will last forever. Make sure you are happy with which one you are leaving.

As Albert Schweitzer put it, “Sometimes our light goes out but is blown into flame by another human being. Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this light.”