Counting on Mother Theresa by Jessica Pettitt

As I travel the country, I often tell stories about our heroes that bring a sense of humanity to them without discrediting their work. I find myself often saying, “Well, I’m no Mother Theresa,” as a reason why I don’t make a difference, when in fact, Mother Theresa and I actually have a lot in common – namely apathy and doubt. This makes sense to me. After reading her journals and letters and such, she, at times, was under motivated by the lack of quantitative evidence of her work making a difference. When working on campuses, I remember the dreaded End of the Year Reports that I had to compile to justify my own work. This is a next to impossible task! Frances Kendall often says, “Every system is exquisitely designed to produce the results it gets.” I couldn’t agree more. No matter the scale, we live in a system where counting and earning are what matter and yet some of us want to serve by inspiring emotions or thoughts that ultimately can be experienced perhaps, but are note easily quantifiable yet still relevant and impactful.

I was recently reminded of this distinction and I would like to share with you something that happened to me recently.
A little background – I am a member of the National Speaker’s Association and this summer at convention earned the designation of a Certified Speaking Professional. This is a six year process that is both quantitative and qualitative. It includes spreadsheets, evaluations, testimonials, and a demonstration of consistent professionalism and high ethical standards. As a CSP, I join the ranks of less than 700 people world wide, less than 50 of which are women, and less than 10 are under the age of 40, and at the annual convention you are awarded a medal that you are expected to wear throughout the week (but only this week!). Convention attendees from around the world stop and congratulate you, offer you hugs, and some pick your brain. This attention only happened at this convention when wearing the medal – it isn’t a daily occurrence in my life :). As someone that started her own business 6 years ago – I actually had concrete evidence to validate my entrepreneurial success.

One day at the convention, some friends and I went out to dinner outside of the hotel in the local Indianapolis area. They were teasing me about being fancy because of my medal and I was teasing them back. The whole thing was as ridiculous and pompous then as it feels now writing about it. I certainly earned the designation, and deep inside me, I worried that I was a mistake, a fraud, and worse yet – I feared that all this measurement didn’t result in really making a difference in people’s lives. I did the quantitative work – but doubted that I really made a difference. It is strange to be both validated and doubtful at the same time.

Then it happened. Our waitress arrived at the table to take our drink order and interrupted herself and stared at me. She asked if I was Jessica Pettitt. I flushed with anxiety and said yes while internally trying to place her face and wondering if I owed her money or something. She got this huge smile and said that I had spoken at her school her sophomore year when she was an RA. She remembered some of my stories and even had my texting number still in her phone. Three years had passed and she remembered me and my work. My heartbeat seemed to slow down. Trust me, I tried, but Tiffany kept stopping by with bits and pieces of her three year old memories. I felt myself well up with tears.

Earlier this is the same day that I received an email about blogging for ACPA’s Commission of Social Justice Educators. I am honored to do so and can’t think of a better story to share to this group. I am not sharing this to show off or something – but – I deeply believe that if Mother Theresa had experienced prior to her death the impact of her work – perhaps she wouldn’t have doubted herself so much. If each member of the CSJE could be validated and heard and remembered and know their own impact – perhaps we wouldn’t doubt ourselves so much.

As an external processing extrovert, I told a few other friends about Tiffany – hoping they could come up with some sarcastic way to diminish the experience for me. They didn’t help. One friend even followed up with her so that she knew how much her memory moved me. She evidently was moved by this too. I then turned to Facebook to find Tiffany – I (of course) was so shocked that I didn’t get her name. I found her – side note – Facebook really makes the Kevin Bacon game so much easier.

When I did Facebook chat with Tiffany she added to this sentiment. She responded to my inquiry with:

I’m also happy that I made you happy. Without thinking about it, I never thought what I did was that big of a deal. I understand though that by me remembering you and your talk with us, means you are making a difference AND YOU ARE!! I’m not the only one who remembers you Jess. You were really great. Correction…ARE really great. Your talk had an impact. I’m happy I ran into you again.

It might not be a big deal – and at the same time – it is. We can’t always know when our work is changing lives or when we can change someone’s life. We can report back and support one another. We can tell someone when they are making a difference. We can be open to hearing how our impact changes other’s. We can be open to hearing these messages as well as giving them to others. We can know that we have a lot in common with Mother Theresa, Tiffany, and each other and that alone can have an impact we can count on.


Originally posted on the CSJE Blog on Tumblr.

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