Every year Time magazine publishes its list of the world’s one hundred most influential people.(1) Of these “influencers” the magazine’s editorial staff grouped them into categories of influence—from leaders and revolutionaries to builders and titans, from artists and entertainers to heroes and icons, scientists and thinkers. Interestingly enough, the magazine even includes those whose influence is deemed wholly negative. Past “honorees” included Bernard Madoff, who stole a reported sixty billion dollars from investors and bankrupted many charitable organizations, and Joaquin Guzman, the Mexican druglord behind the horrific violence that has claimed well-over 15,000 lives in his home country and abroad.
Defining influence seems a tricky business and the editors of Time admit this. “What is influence and how can we possibly compare the influence of an underworld druglord, for example, with a heroic 21 year old soldier who saved his company of Marines while he almost bled to death?”(2) The etymology of the word gives us some understanding of its use and of this kind of comparison. Originally, the word was used as an astrological term, denoting “streaming ethereal power from the stars acting upon the character or destiny of men.”(3) Ultimately, influence is a force or substance flowing from someone or something, which moves the heart or actions of someone else-whether for good or for evil.
For the majority of those listed, however, I suspect that their fame is their influence. In other words, influence becomes less about the one acted upon and more a reflection of an individual. Persons are deemed influential because of their own accomplishments; they amassed vast monetary resources or media empires, held political power or oversight. Most names on the list are cultural icons of one sort or another whose influence is at best mercurial; like shooting stars their light is seen and then just as quickly fades from sight.
One year, while flipping through this issue, three individuals were listed that I suspect are known to very few people. Had influence been determined by a vote, I suspect that most readers of Time magazine would not have deemed them influential. Their names are Brady Gustafson, Mary Scullion, and Somaly Mam. Brady Gustafson, just 21 years of age, saved his fellow Marines when they came under direct attack in Afghanistan. Though Brady himself had suffered a life-threatening injury, he fought to save his friends and fellow Marines until help arrived. Mary Scullion works tirelessly with an organization to help the homeless in Philadelphia, stating that “none of us are home until all of us are home.” As a result of her efforts, there are now less than 200 homeless men and women in Philadelphia. Somaly Mam was sold into the sex trade at age 12 and for over a decade suffered at the hands of her abusers. As an adult, having escaped from her captors and having every opportunity to make a new life for herself, Mam instead returned to Cambodia to try and save others who are still enslaved. She has suffered death threats and her own daughter was raped in retaliation for her efforts to shut down the brothels in which young girls lose their lives daily.
In our society, influence generally indicates power over others-power that inevitably reflects back on the one who is influencing. But for these three individuals, influence has very little to do with their own glory. Their influence is characterized by their work on behalf of others. Indeed, their influence is not about making a name for themselves, but rather about lifting up those without names and faces who have no influence, and who most of the world will never know: homeless men and women, child-victims of the sex trafficking industry, and small-town young men who defend American interests in places of extreme violence and conflict. Offering their lives in this way opens up the possibility of creating lasting influence in the lives of the world’s least influential.
When Jesus spoke about influence in his sermon on the mount, he likened it to salt. Salt is not a flashy spice like cayenne pepper or nutmeg. It rarely calls attention to itself as a predominant flavor. Salt is basic. And yet, salt is essential. Without it, food is bland and tasteless, for salt enlivens all the flavors. Without it, decay and degradation ensue, for salt preserves and produces longevity. Salt cleanses and heals. In recipes, salt serves all the other ingredients, by coaxing out and enhancing their fullest expression and flavor. Jesus calls his followers to be influencers in the way that salt influences a meal: often in the background, and not a self-promoting or singular flavor. Like Somaly Mam, Brady Gufstason and Mary Scullion, influence is like salt; it may be the behind-the-scenes player in the world of ingredients, often hardly noticed, yet powerfully effective in creating a full and lasting result.
(1) Time, “The World’s 100 Most Influential People,” Vol. 173, No. 18, May 11, 2009.
(3) As noted in the Online Etymology Dictionary, http://etymonline.com/index.php?search=influence.
(4) Matthew 5:13-16.
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