By my 42nd birthday I had achieved a fair amount of success by most people’s reckoning. I had been a stakeholder in a very successful Internet startup. I had held executive level positions and managed teams of really smart, driven people. I had started a company and had a very valuable lesson in failure and humility. I had travelled extensively and built a network of professional and personal contacts that were always happy to hook me up with a prospect or interview.
Yet somehow, I felt like a fraud. I knew in my heart of hearts that I had achieved these things through sheer cunning, perseverance, and an innate ability to learn quickly on the job. Surely I was missing some fundamental business knowledge and skills that would eventually expose me as I progressed in my career. I knew that there was stuff that I knew…and there was stuff that I knew that I didn’t know. But what really concerned me was the things that I didn’t know that I didn’t know.
So I did what many people do when faced with a gap in knowledge. I enrolled in an MBA program.
I choose an Executive MBA program with a cohort format. Luckily, I was assigned to a group of truly excellent student colleagues, and we helped each other learn and be successful in a very challenging program. It was a great experience and it validated my thesis—the set of things that I didn’t know that I didn’t know turned out to be bigger that I thought.
But oddly, the most valuable lesson came not in my MBA classes. Not from a mentor or colleague in any of the companies I worked for. Not from any book or seminar. My most valuable lesson came from a chance encounter with a poor farmer along the banks of the Amazon River.
Nothing is Random
In February 2001 I took my second trip to the Amazon River in Brazil as a volunteer short-term missionary with Amazon Outreach. During my first trip in August of 2000, I had had a profound spiritual experience that left me confused and seeking confirmation that the change I was experiencing was genuine and not just an expression of some semi-conscious self improvement. My purpose for the second trip was still very selfish, but as I’ve come to learn and appreciate, God always has a plan even when our goals and His are seemingly misaligned.
When we arrived at the first village I was assigned to help the pharmacist at our makeshift health clinic dispense medication and vitamins. Shortly before Noon a middle-aged farmer approached the table and handed me a prescription—which was incredible given that we were more than 100 miles from the nearest town with a medical clinic. I looked at the paper and realized that it was a prescription for eyeglasses, not for medication. I handed it to our pharmacist and he remarked, “Too bad nobody’s working the eye care ministry on this trip.” In addition to medical, pharmacy, and dental service ministries, the mission also provides eye care services on most trips. But on this particular voyage, there were no volunteers who had been trained to use the equipment to conduct vision tests or dispense eyeglasses.
The farmer explained through our interpreter that he saw our boat pass by his village the day before and that he had rowed most of the night and all morning to find us, hoping that we could help him. I asked our interpreter to explain to the man that we did not have anyone to help him and as she spoke, I could see his smile of hope fade. But in the end, he simply nodded, placed the prescription on the table, thanked us, and left the clinic.
I was furious. I knew that we had literally thousands of pairs of eyeglasses on the boat, but no one with the skill to find the right pair for this man. As I walked back to the boat for lunch I read the prescription and realized the man had poorer vision than I did—and I couldn’t walk across the room safely without my glasses. How did this man navigate a river filled with dangerous fish and crocodiles?
When I got to the boat I found the mission leader and explained the odd situation. I asked him if I could go down into the hold of the boat and try to find a pair of glasses that could work for the farmer and he agreed.
Moments later I was squatting in front of more than a dozen very large boxes each containing dozens of smaller boxes. Inside each of the smaller boxes were 20 pairs of neatly packed and graded eyeglasses. Using the math skills the nuns taught me, I quickly calculated that there were more than 5,000 pairs of glasses on the shelves in front of me. I wiped the sweat from my forehead in frustration and decided to say a quick prayer. I closed my eyes and said out loud, “God, please help me to find something that will help that man. He came all this way and I can’t send him home without something.”
I took the box in front of me down from the shelf, opened the top, reached in and took out one of the smaller boxes. I ripped the tape off and plunged my hand into the middle of the row of plastic bags and pulled out a pair of glasses. On the front of each package was written the “distance” and “add” values that correspond to the readings your optometrist determines from the eye examination. I read the numbers, then pointed my flashlight at the prescription sheet. To my eternal amazement the numbers matched what was written on the plastic pouch exactly. Not only was the distance value (-4.50 & -4.25) a perfect match, but the axis and prism values that correct astigmatism matched perfectly. Out of more than 5,000 eyeglasses, I had picked the right pair on the first try. I took the glasses out of the plastic pouch as my hands trembled and laughed out loud all by myself in the steaming hold of the river boat. Not only were the glasses a perfect match, but they also happened to be an sturdy and attractive pair of men’s glasses.
I climbed up the ladder and raced up the hill to the village. After searching for a few moments panicked that the man had already departed for the long journey home, I found the farmer sitting on a stool in the shade of a tree outside the building we were working in.
As I approached he turned and saw me, that gentle smile once again on his lips. He remained seated and I removed his straw hat, pulled the glasses out of my pocket and placed them on his face. The farmer looked up at me with wide eyes, then turned his head slowly away scanning the row of huts on the waterfront, and then fixed his gaze somewhere across the river. His shoulders began to heave as he repeated over and over, “Glória a Deus! Obrigado meu senhor!”
The man turned back to me, threw his arms around my waist and sobbed. We both remained there holding eachother and crying until one of our interpreters came over and asked what was wrong. I explained what had happened and she knelt down and took the man’s hand, asking him if he was alright. He said something in Portuguese to her through his tears.
“What did he say?” I asked.
The interpreter replied, “He said that he had forgotten how beautiful the world is.”
Seeing the World Clearly
More than a decade has passed since that day but I count it as the most profound and important day of my life. It was the day that God used my hands to provide for the needs of a man half a world away. It was the day that I learned that God can orchestrate the lives of two people to bring them together for a moment in time to change them in ways neither thought was possible. When I consider all of the singular events that had to happen to bring the boat, the glasses, the farmer, and me together at that one moment in that unlikely place—I cannot call it anything but a miracle.
But the real miracle was not just that a poor farmer in the middle of the Amazon got the exact pair of glasses to help him live better and see better. No…the real miracle was that a man who measured success by his title and paycheck, and claimed credit for everything that was seemingly good in his life—that blind man…well, he was given the gift of sight. For the first time he saw that God is paying attention to us. All of us. His eyes were opened to the reality that everything he clung to had no eternal value whatsoever. He found that no achievement, money, accolade, power, or possession could compare with the simple act of serving and loving a complete stranger.
The Best Version of Me
I reflected on this particular scene from my life most recently during yet another trip to the Amazon. Since 2000 I have served on 17 mission trips to Brazil, and my latest trip was very special. I realized that I am the best version of myself when I’m serving God on the river. And I pray daily to be that same man at home and in my professional life.
I shared this story because I firmly believe that many of us cling too tightly to our titles, money, possessions, and comforts. The work we do every day in our chosen career is important, but it is not the most important thing. The rewards we get in the way of recognition, money, prestige, and power are all fleeting and have no lasting value. And none of it can compare with a simple act of love in service to another human being.
The journey continues, and God shows me new aspects of His grace and mercy every day. And He continues to refine me in ways I never thought possible. And I thank him daily for sending a simple Brazilian farmer into my life to help this blind man see.