On the Mississippi River and goodness


This past Monday evening, in order to escape from my internet-less apartment, I decided to take a stroll to the Mississippi Riverwalk, on the Port of Dubuque.  My apartment is about a 20-minute walk from the river, so I think I’ll be going there quite a bit this summer whenever it’s dry and not too hot or humid (which, considering how freakishly humid Midwestern summers can be, might not be very often).  I’ve been living in Dubuque for the past four years but never took very many chances to get acquainted with the Mississippi River.  I figure that since I’m so close to it now, though, I have no excuse not to visit more often.

I took a seat on the observation deck of the Grand River Center, a convention and event center overlooking the Mississippi, wondering why I hardly ever enjoyed the river while I was in college but rejoicing in the fact that I now lived a stone’s throw from it.  As I relaxed, my eyes drifted to the boats on the river—motorboats, jet skis, pontoons, full of people eager to soak up the remaining sunlight of the mild June evening.  I watched white-crested waves form behind the boats that sliced through the river and remembered my childhood summer vacations spent on Crescent Lake in northern Wisconsin.  On sunny days I would wade a few feet into the lake to comb the sand for shells and rocks, only to retreat back to the shore whenever boats passed.  I would then sit on the shore facing the lake and see how high the waves would come and whether I could withstand their force.  I was always impressed by the momentum of waves generated by even small and slow-moving boats.

I was skeptical that the waves made by boats on the Mississippi would be able to maintain enough force to be noticeable by the time they reached the shore, though.  The Mississippi River is as wide as a small lake near the riverwalk and it moves at a faster rate than a lake.  And I don’t have a good enough understanding of the laws of motion, how water behaves, or anything like that to know whether waves from a passing boat can dissipate in a body of water as big as the Mississippi.

But sure enough, the waves inched their way to the rocks lining the shore and beat rhythmically against them, perhaps not with the intensity as the waves that I remembered from my summers on Crescent Lake, but enough that I could still see and hear them.  Even something as small as a motorboat was mighty enough to move the even mightier Mississippi.

As I continue to wonder what I’ve been put on this planet to do, the only thing that springs into my mind most of the time is to do good.

That’s it.  Do good.  I haven’t been able to distill anything more specific than that yet.

It seems so easy because there are too many things that qualify as “doing good” to list.  But at the same time, it’s overwhelming for the exact same reason, and because it sometimes seems like there’s just as much (if not more) bad than there is good in the world.  I feel too tiny to make any sort of impact or to move anything or anybody.

Sometimes I want to be like the hulking barges that transport goods down the Mississippi, solid and powerful and commanding and capable of moving so much.

But most of us aren’t called to be barges.  Most of us are called to stir the waters around us in a much gentler way, like the motorboats that bob and putter on the river.  Small though they may be relative to a great river, their movement is enough to send waves to the shore.

Goodness behaves in much the same way sometimes, doesn’t it?  The smallest act can rattle a person to their core or inspire others to return the favor.  Even if what we do only impacts one person, it might create a sort of ripple effect that ends up reaching more people that we anticipated.

Even if that doesn’t happen, goodness is goodness no matter if it reaches 2 people or 20 people or 202 people.

And goodness is always mighty, even if we don’t always think so, even if we are tempted to underestimate its might.  Anything that disturbs the calm indifference around us or breaks currents of despair and gloom can be enough to unburden someone.

I wonder if that’s why some people are so quick to give up on their dreams:  they want their work or their action to matter to more people and get discouraged when it doesn’t.  If that’s the case, the world needs more people who believe in the goodness of their actions, no matter how small.  Who see not the size or the depth of the bad around them, but the gentle waves that their goodness can create.

I’d very much like to be one of those people.


2 thoughts on “On the Mississippi River and goodness

  1. well said! I’m a travel photographer/writer who made a 90-day road trip following the entire Mississippi from the headwaters to the Gulf. I met literally hundreds of good people on the journey. They are everywhere in the world AND there is something unique about “River energy.” You can see stories and photos from the journey at http://www.gayleharper.wordpress.com if you like!

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