ON HIS FIRST MILITARY CAMPAIGN, George
Washington made a terrible mistake. The American colonies had
not yet rebelled that was 20 years down the road. Washington
was working for Britain, which was in a cold war
with France. The two countries were tussling with each other
for territory all over the world, including the area near Virginia.
One day Washington and his troops spotted a party of French camping
in their territory, and attacked them, killing ten men and capturing
He shot first and asked questions later.
He found out it was a diplomatic party, and one of the men he
killed was an important French ambassador. Washington had made
a big mistake. The two major military powers of that time ended
their cold war and entered a hot war.
Imagine, for the moment, that you were
Washington, and you made that mistake. What would you tell yourself
about it? How would the mistake fit into the overall pattern
of your life?
In other words: What kind of story do you
live in? Where do you think you come from and where do you think
You live by a story. Have you ever thought
of it that way? Each of us has a story, and we are the main character
in that story. If I interviewed you for a couple of weeks, I
could probably piece together a coherent story that you live
by even if youve never really thought about it yourself.
Its your life story and it is the meaning of your life.
For example, one story Washington could
have told himself was: I am destined for failure.
His father died young, his mother was a nag. Compared to his
contemporaries, he was poor. Killing the French ambassador could
have been a final straw. He might have concluded that he wasnt
cut out for military work and given up, climbed inside a bottle
and we might never have heard of him.
Thats one story. Thats one
context within which he could have lived his life. And do you
see that the story leads to certain feelings and certain actions
consistent with the story?
Heres another possibility: He could
have thought he was destined to make his mark in the world, and
that his mistake was the most important lesson he was ever to
learn. Divine Providence, he could have told himself,
is preparing me for a great task. I must learn all I can
from this mistake for it may affect the future of the world.
Do you think he would feel differently
about the circumstances of his life with this story? Of course
he would. Same circumstances, different story. But the heroic
story would make him learn important military lessons from his
mistake and it would help him persist and endure hardships that
would collapse a weaker person. The story would give him strength.
Judging by the letters he wrote home, the
story he lived by was a lot more like this second one than the
first one. And because he lived by that more inspiring story,
he persisted and he learned and he did make a difference.
Man of La Mancha, a musical made in 1972,
is based on the story Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Its
an entertaining story, but its also profound.
Don Quixote sees the world as a quest,
as an adventure, and he sees a poor kitchen maid as a lady of
unsurpassed beauty and chastity. He dreams the impossible dream,
he fights the unbeatable foe, he looks at life as a challenge
to do good in the face of evil and make the world a better place.
He wants to dedicate his victories to the kitchen maid, his Lady.
She is bitter about life, full of anger.
Why do you do these things?
she asks him.
She bursts out in frustration, Its
ridiculous, the things you do!
He answers simply, I come in a world
of iron to make a world of gold.
The worlds a dung heap,
she says, and we are maggots that crawl on it.
Two different stories, same objective reality.
Yet one lives in a life of nobility and beauty and adventure,
and the other lives in filth and misery and hatred.
What kind of story do you live? Is it heroic?
Or is it weak? Do you have a sense of destiny? Or do you have
a sense of emptiness? What do you think is your destiny? The
destiny of Earth? The destiny of the human race? The story you
tell yourself the myth within which you live your life
strongly affects your feelings and the ultimate outcome
of your life.
And it can change. You can change it deliberately.
MYTHS HAVE BEEN A PART of humankind since
very near the beginning. We call them myths when they are other
peoples stories; we call them true when the story is our
A shaman sitting around the campfire 20,000
years ago telling his people how their tribe came to be wasnt
sharing what he thought of as a myth or fun little
story; the story he told was the context of their daily lives.
It was the pattern each of their experiences fit into. It gave
their lives meaning. It gave each of them purpose for their existence.
It enriched their lives...or it deadened it, depending on the
Some of the stories we hear of nonscientific
people seem quaint even ridiculous to us; we all
know the earth is not sitting on the back of a giant turtle;
we know the universe wasnt created by the wind.
If those nonscientific people took a ride
in a space shuttle and looked at the earth, they could see for
themselves theres no giant turtle. And they would come
up with a different story. But they would come up with a story.
Everyone has either accepted a story from their culture or their
family, or created one of their own. Everyone has a story they
live. And so have you.
Its important to live within a story
that gives your life dignity and purpose. Itll make a difference
in your life. And you dont have to force yourself to believe
in an old myth if you dont believe it. Your myth,
to enrich your life, has to fit into your existing knowledge.
It has to be true for you.
Because we know so much about the world,
many of the old myths are difficult to believe in. Our security-blankets
have been snatched away. And for many people, the modern stories
they live by are empty, desolate, negative and hopeless.
We now know the universe is vast. We know
the earth is not the center of everything. We know the forces
of gravity and the size of stars and galaxies are beyond our
ability to grasp, and they dwarf us and our lives in comparison.
But that knowledge doesnt mean you have to live by a desolate
story. It lends itself to nobility and heroism just as easily
as any other body of knowledge.
For example, you also know that this one
little planet is the only one we know of with life on it. Life
is precious. The fact that you and I exist is amazing! The existence
of the universe, and the existence of life is nothing short of
Many people take this scientific knowledge
and without any leaps of faith create for themselves
a story with meaning. They consider it their sacred duty to protect
and preserve this planet and its precious forms of life.
A person in a position of power may work
for policies to prevent animals from becoming extinct or policies
to clean up pollution or policies to promote cooperation with
other nations. A mother may devote her life to her children and
give them wisdom and courage and an appreciation for this rare
planet. A typist for a large office may devote some of his spare
time to writing letters to his representatives on issues he thinks
are important, fighting the noble battle for Life.
Anybody in any position may play an important,
even crucial part in the way things unfold in the future. You
may make an important difference. You dont think so? Neither
did George Washington in the first part of his life. And what
if he hadnt lead our country in its fight for freedom?
What if he was the crucial difference and we lost the war? What
if our experiment with democracy and human rights had failed?
It was not a self-evident truth, it was an invention;
it never existed in the long history of our species. Even the
inventors of democracy the ancient Greeks had slaves.
If our fight against the King of England had failed, would kings
and fascist dictators rule the world today? Would the idea of
individual human rights have disappeared? Would freedom have
been snuffed out? Its quite possible. Human rights didnt
exist in all the history of civilization.
Who can say what a difference he made?
Who knows what difference you will make? Your life isnt
In the struggle for the right of women
to vote in the United States, one obscure man made a difference.
He was a representative in a small state. I dont even know
his name. But the right of women to vote, which had won in the
Senate by only one vote, had to win in the House. And it did
again by one vote, and the one vote was our hero: A representative
in a small state who was expected to vote against it.
But his mother wrote him a letter and urged
him to vote yes. Her letter moved him, and he voted, and the
world has never been the same. That woman may not have done another
significant thing in her life, but what she did made a difference.
All those small acts of integrity she committed in her life that
earned her sons respect led up to that one important moment
when she changed his mind and changed the lives of millions forever
Each small, relatively meaningless act
of her life had meaning and purpose. She may have realized that;
maybe not. She may have lived a life couched in a story of nobility
and heroism; or maybe she thought of herself as just one worthless
person in a sea of worthless people. We dont know what
story she lived. But that isnt important now. She has passed
You, however, are alive and kicking. Your
story is important.
You may be destined to make a difference.
You may be the one person who turns the tide. Something important
may depend on your goodness or your intelligence or your strength.
And all the circumstances of your life right now, especially
the parts you dont like, may be perfectly preparing you
for the part you will play in the destiny of the earth.
Some people make a difference with their
lives but dont know it, because what they did only set
the stage for what comes later, but what comes later could only
have happened if that stage was set. Whether you see the results
of your strength and goodness isnt the point. The point
is that the story you live by makes a difference in your life
right now. It makes a difference now, regardless of what happens
If you have a cynical or empty or tragic
story right now, it may make all the difference that youre
reading this. This may be your turning point. And your belief
that it is your mission to do what you can may be what keeps
you trying against the odds, and it may be that because you tried
against the odds, you made a crucial difference.
Your story is to some degree a self-fulfilling
prophecy. Make it a good one. Create a story that gives you dignity
and purpose and meaning and strength of character. Teach that
story to your children.
You may be the one.