Doing the Right Thing

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Max looked down at his feet. Gazed back up at the desolate street. Watched as his breath plumed before him in the cold midnight air like dragon’s breath.

He waited.

How had he gotten to this point? He took hold of who he was, and like a string he tried to follow it back through time. But that string was so tangled and twisted that he found he wasn’t able to follow it very far.

His father had introduced him to this lifestyle when he was a child, but that was no excuse. He’d had plenty of opportunities to escape. So why hadn’t he run off when he’d had the chance?

A shadow caught his eye, and he turned in its direction just in time for the darkness before him to melt, morph, coalesce into the figure of another man. The figure dropped a cigarette to the ground, tamped it beneath the heel of a thick leather boot and tipped a broad fedora hat in Max’s direction.

“Evening,” said the man, and oddly Max was reminded of John Wayne. He reached out with a thick muscular hand. Max took it and shook.

“Evening,” echoed Max. Butterflies churned in his stomach. This was it. This was when it would all go to Hell.

“The boss has another job for you,” said the man, reaching in his pocket for a second cigarette. “A gentleman by the name of Richardson. Says he’ll pay quite a sum if you can do this one right.” A stainless steel lighter sparked, ignited. The man lit up and took a long drag. “Sounds important.”

Max shifted his feet, shivered as the frigid air pressed in around him.

Richardson. Max wondered how he’d crossed the boss’s path, and he could only speculate on how terribly he’d fucked up to warrant the boss’s intervention.

Max would be asked to introduce himself, to befriend him, to gain his trust so that he could ultimately lure him to his demise. It was a skill he was good at, a skill that ran in his family, the ability to read minds, to get at the heart of a person’s needs and desires. That, along with a pinch of charisma, won them over every time.

No doubt Richardson would be dethroned. That was the boss’s term. It meant he would be stripped of everything but his life, imprisoned just outside the range of human perception, forced to look on from the shadows in despair as someone else stole his identity, his life, and enjoyed all the things that were rightfully his. He would be doomed to wander the Earth in exile forever.

Like a disinherited prince, the boss was wont to say, hence the term.

But Max wanted no part of it, not anymore. He’d ruined too many lives, had betrayed too many people’s trust, consigning them to a fate worse than death. He’d foolishly followed in his father’s footsteps, but he would follow no further.

“Actually,” said Max in a strangely quiet voice, “I wanted to talk to you about that.”

The man squinted. “Yeah?”

“Well, I—” What was he doing? The boss would tear him apart. Perhaps he too would be dethroned. Well, it would be a fitting punishment, atonement for his own crimes.

“Go on,” said the man.

“I mean, it’s just that— I thought maybe I’d go to school, try to make a different kind of life for myself.”

The man stared at him, boring a hole through Max’s skull. Then without warning he threw back his head and laughed, a hearty mirth that took Max aback.

“School? You’re a funny guy, Max. A very funny guy.”

“I’m serious. I—”

“Stop,” said the man, and just like that the laughter was gone. “You’ll want to stop joking, because sometimes,” said the man, backing Max into a brick wall, “jokes have consequences.”

Max swallowed. He’d prepared for this moment, had practiced what he would say in front of a mirror for hours. But now that he was here and actually saying it, the imagined bluster and bravado had evaporated.

“I can’t,” Max stammered. “Not anymore. It’s too much.”

“The boss gave you everything. And your father. And your grandfather.”

“I appreciate everything the boss—”

“Bullshit,” said the man, poking him hard in the chest, “I don’t think you do. The boss needs you, Max. Your family has a rare skill that he needs, and in return there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for you. And now you’re going to deny him. Why, because it’s hard? Because it hurts? Because suddenly your conscience bothers you and you want to sleep better at night?”

“This is wrong,” said Max, slowly picking up steam. He’d already pushed too far; his fate had been sealed the moment he opened his mouth. “You know it is. I can’t undo what my family’s done, but I don’t have to be a part of it anymore.”

The man glared at him, goggling as if Max had just proclaimed with religious zeal that the Earth was flat. Finally, after a long silence: “So, that’s it then?”

“Yes,” said Max, and he shrugged. “I have to do the right thing.”

“All right.” The man released Max, and he slid down onto the sidewalk, his legs suddenly too weak to support his weight. “You’ll be hearing from the boss soon.” The man stepped back, melted once more into the shadows. “Real soon.”

Once again, Max waited.

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Sacrifice

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Max stood in the middle of a darkened desert beside a man whose name he did not know.

“I didn’t ask for this,” said Max.

“No,” the man agreed. “You didn’t.”

He sighed and gazed up at the stars, knowing full well it could be the last time he saw them.

He’d been given a choice. Lose the world and save it for future generations, or stay and fail to prevent the world’s end. There were no compromises, no half measures.

The man shrugged his shoulders. “You could just walk away, you know.”

“No,” said Max after a long pause. “I can’t.”

The man offered him a sad smile. “That’s why I picked you.”

Max took one final drag of air from an atmosphere that no longer belonged to him. Then he took the man’s hand, and together they disappeared into the dark.

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Does What You Do Matter?

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If you’re like me, you probably stop to look around once in a while and wonder if your actions are noticed, if the decisions you make affect the world in any remotely measurable way. After all, you’re only one individual, just so much flotsam floating around in a boundless roiling sea of people who will never know your name.

When you try to help out a friend, when you give food to a homeless person, when you do anything at all to show the people around you that you care, have you really contributed to the health and well-being of the world? When you’re frustrated and you choose to take it out on others, when you steal a few dollars when you think no one’s looking, when you indulge in idle gossip or slander, are you really a significant part of the world’s problems? Does what you do matter, or are all of your deeds just statistical anomalies, a series of dead-end choices that are drowned out by the deafening noise of a densely populated world?

If you’re a celebrity or world leader, your role is obvious. You have a large sphere of influence, and your actions directly impact thousands or even millions of people. But if you’re just an average Joe, it’s easy to believe that what you do is meaningless, that however you choose to act, your deeds won’t ever touch the world in a significant way.

The problem with this belief is that it’s born of a limited vision. You can only sense what stands immediately before you, and unless you can witness the impact your choices have on the rest of the world, you’re going to dismiss the things you do as insignificant. This narrow perception blinds you to the bigger picture and makes it impossible for you to understand how connected you are to everyone else, to how much good and how much evil you’re capable of inflicting on the world through the simple act of making choices, which on the surface appear mundane and insignificant.

In reality, everything you do has vast far-reaching consequences, not just for your immediate family and friends, but for your whole community, your nation, even the world. The things you do aren’t isolated events. Your choices influence others. On a normal day, you might only interact with ten people, but all ten of those people will interact with  others, and each of those will interact with yet others. Like the surface of a lake when it’s disturbed, your actions ripple outward, propagating through the social layers of the world, their reach magnified with distance.

A rude gesture is like a match applied to dry kindling; it seems so trivial, until the fire spreads, consuming the world, leaving those who’ve lost everything in its wake to wonder how the fire could have been started in the first place.

An act of love, on the other hand, sparks a different kind of fire, one that has its genesis in a smile, a hug, or a word of encouragement, one that consumes hearts, until the world is a conflagration of kindness, empathy and compassion.

Most of us dream about changing the world, about making the world better. It’s only when faced with the apparent worthlessness of our existence that we become jaded, that we give up on our dream because we can’t see any reasonable way to achieve it.

Our dream of a better world can be realized. But to make it happen, we must first extend our vision beyond what we can see with our eyes. We must be capable of comprehending the far-reaching consequences of our actions. We might not be able to see how those outside our spheres of influence will be affected, but we can use our imagination to paint a larger picture, to see how the things we do might grow and spread beyond our local communities.

Reading fiction is one way to accomplish this. Fiction lets us witness firsthand not only the actions of individuals, but all the many ways in which those actions affect others. It’s a fantastic mental exercise that breeds a profound awareness of the human condition. There’s a reason we’ve been telling stories for millennia.

While it’s important to recognize our individuality and to value the many ways in which we’re unique, it’s equally important to recognize that we’re not just a loosely bound collection of disconnected beings, but a societal organism whose body is the composition of the entire human population. What happens to one part of the body affects the others. Evil deeds spread like cancer, until they metastasize and begin to destroy. Good deeds, on the other hand, are healing forces, which fight the malignant tumors even as they sustain and uplift everything else, rejuvenating the world.

Understanding that your actions do in fact leave a lasting impression on the planet, you shouldn’t ask yourself if what you do matters. Instead, you should decide if you desire to be a part of the cancer or a part of the cure.

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If Your Life Is A Story, How Do You Make Sure It Has A Happy Ending?

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There’s a reason stories resonate so strongly. They reflect real life in profound and mysterious ways. They teach us about ourselves. They teach us how to live. It’s in fantasy that we find ourselves, that we discover the meaning of our existence. Is it any surprise then that your life should actually be the greatest story of all?

In the grand sweeping epic that is your life, you’re the main character. Your story is an account of your progress as you gradually develop into the man or woman you were created to be. It’s about your struggles, your victories, your failures, your desires, your hopes and your dreams.

Like all tales, yours has a beginning and an end. And perhaps it’s the ending that concerns you most of all. Who will you have become when the last page is turned? Will you be a hero or a villain? Will you have lived a life worth living? Will your story have a happy ending, or will it be a tragedy?

It’s up to you.

You have the power to be whatever you want to be. Life isn’t just something that happens to you. You might be a character, subject to the mandates of your story. But you’re also one of your story’s authors. The choices you make shape and mold you as a person.

Of course, circumstances beyond your control will always, to some degree, dictate the course your life will take. But your story isn’t about that. It’s about who you are. Who you are is determined not by the things that happen to you, but by how you respond to them. You choose whether to react to conflict with anger or patience. You choose whether to react to fear with courage or cowardice.

You might be one of the lucky few whom fortune and fate have favored in abundance. Or, your life might be a roiling cloud of doom and gloom. But it’s how you react to the cards you’re dealt that will determine the outcome of your story.

If you’ve been blessed with good fortune, will you share it with others who are less fortunate, or will you squander it on yourself? If you’ve been downtrodden and forced to suffer for most of your life, will you allow that experience to serve as the crucible in which the impurities of untested human nature are burned away, making you wise, empathetic and caring beyond your years, or will you allow yourself to be consumed by jealousy, bitterness and hate?

Your choices will determine whether you were the hero or the villain. Your choices will determine whether or not you lived a worthy life. Your choices will determine whether your story ends in happiness or tragedy.

In the end, there’s only one person responsible for the kind of ending your life’s story will assume: you. So make it a good one.

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