"Nothing you do is in vain"


My older brother’s sister-in-law has been doing international relief work for almost as long as I’ve known her. She was so helpful and wise, at the time that I was considering it myself, that I didn’t go into the field, though the thought of being so useful to those in such need was overwhelmingly seductive.

I know I don’t have the mental scale that lets you balance what you can’t accomplish with what you can, and decide whether the tradeoff is acceptable. The conditions are so harsh and the scale of work so grim that it imposes limits on care that are unimaginable to those of us who take soap and clean towels for granted; let’s not even think about bandages or IVs. I’d have come off very badly indeed, and that means I couldn’t have done much good.

In our intercontinental conversation on the subject (she’s British), she pulled off a balancing act I have strived to acheive ever since: clearly convinced of my capacities, without any assumption that she knew what they were. When you think about it, that’s very sensible — everybody’s good at something, often several somethings, and there’s nothing that says they have to wear their talents on their sleeves.

I was desperately intrigued by international aid work, but not sure I should pursue it and not even sure how to start; I wanted to know what to do to improve my chances.

She told me, “It doesn’t really matter what you do.” Shifting up from her lovely gentle, understated, soft British manners, I was riveted to my chair as her voice became more resonant, more intense, and I could hear the words marching from the depths of her soul, as she said something like this: “Do what you do; follow your instincts; do the work that comes to you. If [disaster relief] is the right work, the opportunities will open for you when you put yourself in their way, and whatever you’ve done until then will help you get there. If something else is right for you, then whatever you’ve done will help you get there instead.” And then, with a certainty that still makes my bones ring, “Nothing you do is wasted effort. Nothing you do is in vain.”

That was a third of my lifetime ago. Even now, when I have to pull myself through these non-international, unaided situations that are unimaginably grim in a totally different way, I remember her words and how she said them: “Nothing you do is in vain.”

Knowing that no effort is wasted effort, everything becomes much less difficult. Even in such a tiny life as mine has become, this matters hugely. In fact, it totally changes the game.

She was awarded an MBE in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honors list. Clearly someone agrees that her own work is far from in vain.

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