There’s no denying it; I’m middle-aged. Even though I may not always feel like it, or act like it (so my wife would say), the calendar does not lie. That leads me to look back at what I’ve done for more than 5 decades — and look ahead to (I hope) decades more. What have I done? What’s still to be done? And what matters most?
Oftentimes, when I ask this question, my mind goes to big things; I think about big names who have had big ideas — and done something with them. I can’t help but wonder: What about me? What big things have I done?
Maybe you’re like me. Almost certainly you’re like me. As Erik Barker says: Odds are 50 years from now, your birthday won’t be a major holiday.
In the realm of countless millions whose name isn’t on a calendar, we could include Albert Schatz. He grew up in a poor farming family in Connecticut, and ended up studying soil biology at Rutgers. The writer Bill Bryson says that Schatz had a hunch that soil microbes might provide another antibiotic, alongside the newly-discovered penicillin. In 1943, through patient trial with hundreds of samples, he came up with streptomycin, the first drug to kill the Gram-negative bacteria. His supervisor, Selman Waksman, then took charge of the clinical trials, and had Schatz sign off on the patent rights, allowing Waksman to pocket some of the millions of dollars in yearly revenue — while also taking credit for the discovery. When Schatz wrote a paper on how the process of discovery actually happened, the only journal that would publish it was the “Pakistan Dental Review.” In 1952, Waksman was awarded the Nobel Prize, and died being lauded as the “father of antibiotics.” Twenty years after Waksman’s death, the American Society for Microbiology sought to make amends, and invited Schatz to address the society on the 50th anniversary of the discovery of streptomycin. In doing so, they gave him their highest award: The Selman A. Waksman medal.
Very few of us know Schatz’s name, but all of us benefit from the diligent, faithful work that he did outside of the limelight. And isn’t that really how most big things occur? Rarely is something great achieved because of someone’s dramatic, one-time accomplishment. Instead, most change comes through patient, diligent, faithful toil.
Think about it this way: how many people pour tons of money, time, and energy into their wedding day, and then expect their marriage to just work — without the energy, commitment, and daily work that makes a marriage possible? Ultimately, it’s not the wedding day that matters most, but the wedding day-to-day. Nobody gets a party for making it to their 5th anniversary; but every couple gets (or should get) a celebration when they’ve reached 50. Why? Because they have done the hard and diligent work of learning to walk through life together day-by-day, decade-after-decade.
And so, as I look back on 52 years, there’s not much that looks dramatic. As I look ahead, I don’t expect that to change. But what I do believe and what I do want to pursue is being faithful to the opportunities God is giving me. To stop, and take a moment to listen — really listen — to the person in front of me, right now, who needs encouragement. To be open to each new day and each new opportunity, knowing that I have no idea how God might use this interaction, this moment, this encounter, this effort, this day.
What makes a difference — in our own lives and in the lives of others — is the regular commitment to faithfulness. It may get noticed; it likely will not. You may get thanks; you probably won’t. But remember: it’s often not the person with the important role or title who makes the most difference. Like Albert Schatz, it’s those who do what matters most by faithfully doing what is right in front of them.