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You just never know…

Do you ever wonder whether what you do means anything to anyone? I mean, in the grander scheme of things: do you think about if what you are doing is making a difference in people’s lives? I have these moments from time to time. The writer of Ecclesiastes knew this feeling well: “Everything is meaningless!”

Perhaps you don’t. Perhaps it’s just me. There are times when I work, and the response is silence. I wonder if it actually means anything at all to somebody, or whether I should live quietly and eventually shuffle off this mortal coil.

Years ago, I was sitting in a theatre workshop with a well-known South African actor and playwright. He recounted a comedy show he performed which was in a very small venue. Sitting in the front row was a very old lady with large spectacles. She sat staring at him throughout the show with a deadpan face. While everyone else in the audience was bending over in fits of laughter, with tears streaming down their cheeks during the first act, this little old lady hardly budged. She sat motionless, bug-eyed… and just stared at him.

He said that at interval he went to the changing room, lay down on the floor and all but cried in desperation. He just couldn’t seem to block her out of his vision. She was completely inanimate, and it was getting to him and his performance. Was she not enjoying it? Why wasn’t she reacting? Why did she come if she was just going to sit there? This is a theatre show, for goodness sake!?

Nevertheless, he pulled himself together, rose to his feet and went out to perform the second act. He gave it his all, mustering every bit of comedic genius and energy that he had. But it was a carbon copy of the first act, with everyone laughing and streaming tears of joy… while the little old lady sat motionless in the front row.

As is customary after shows with small audiences, the actor went to the door and greeted audience members on their way out. He couldn’t help but notice the little old lady hobbling towards him with her walking stick.

“Oh boy!” he thought. “Here we go…”

She approached him, held out her hand to shake his, and pulled him towards her. “I would just like to thank you so much,” she tremored quietly in his ear. “I haven’t had such a good laugh in years!”

Needless to say, he was dumbfounded.

I’ve always remembered that story. On the one hand you never know who’s watching or who’s listening. On the other hand, even if you do, you’re never fully sure about the interpretation of what you do.

I have a friend who is a preacher, and he once said to me that his responsibility is to speak. “What the congregation does with the words I can’t really control,” he said. “My job is to speak.”

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