So one morning a few years ago I’m meeting Father Dan for breakfast at Yours Truly at Shaker Square and have in mind a paradox for him to consider. In his homilies, Father Dan frequently hammers home that we need to work primarily on ourselves and get out of our heads that we can or should change anyone else. On the other hand, it seems that Father Dan is always helping other people to change their lives. How does he do it? Is it something we should be trying to do? What if our friends and family want to change? How can we help and support them?
He begins to answer my question by sharing some basic Greek philosophy: “Socrates said it’s questionable whether anybody could teach anybody else anything.” And so, Father Dan never approaches people with the intention of changing them.
With everyone he meets, he says, “I have to choose what is.”
He goes on, “If I can model things that I think that are of value or are useful, then they have the opportunity of choosing. The choice is more on their side than on mine. I’m not choosing to change them. I’m choosing them as they are, but I may be modeling something that they find of value.”
Like what? I ask. What would you model? “Our best gift,” he says, “is our brokenness. You have to take your brokenness and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. I shine with my brokenness. I realize that when pain, from anywhere, has been dumped on me, I have to deal with it. It has to be used for some purpose.”
Reacting with compassion and acceptance makes you part of the solution instead of the problem, he says, even if you’re a tiny part. “I really do believe,” he says, “that what we do and say is not all that significant. We’re only just one act of a twenty-five-act show. But the next twenty acts depend in part on us. So I make a difference in my children, and they make a difference in their children, and so on. So we can end up being a part of a solution.”
I learn a lot listening to Father Dan, but I learn even more by watching him. Like so many others, I’ve been changed just by being around him, even though changing me is not on his agenda.
That day at Yours Truly, we had a brand-new waiter, a rail-thin, nervous young man with glasses, who, by chance, had been a schoolmate of my daughter. It was clearly David’s first day as a waiter. He did an effective job, but he was overly attentive, stopping by every few minutes to ask nervously if we needed anything.
I struck up a conversation with David, mentioning my daughter. We chatted briefly, and during our meal, both Father Dan and I tried to make him feel at ease. Then, when we were ready to go, we left him a sizable tip and both picked up a comment card to write something complimentary about David and the service – a thoughtful gesture for a green employee.
Up to now, Father Dan and I were behaving very similarly. I had made an effort to reassure David and left a nice tip. I was planning to write a nice comment. But this is where Fr. Dan and I parted company, and I learned my lesson-by-example for the day.
Fr. Dan lingered over the card. He sat quietly and thought carefully before writing. Instead of just checking off the boxes and writing a quick “good job” in the blanks, as I did, Fr. Dan started writing. I said goodbye and went off to the restroom. I can still picture him sitting, seriously musing over that comment card.
When I got out of the restroom, he was gone, and I paused by our table to sneak a look at what Father Dan had written about our waiter. It said something like this: “David is a conscientious and thoughtful young man. He took very good care of us and made sure that we would enjoy our meal. If today is any indication, he will prove to be an excellent waiter.”
Father Dan’s words and actions are consistent, and, as a rule, his actions provide even clearer advice than his words. How to make a difference in someone’s life? How to be part of the solution? That extra attention and those extra minutes. Those extra words, so carefully chosen.