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John W. Gardner, founding chairman of Common Cause, said it's a rare and high privilege to help people understand the difference they can make -- not only in their own lives, but also in the lives of others, simply by giving of themselves.

Gardner tells of a cheerful old man who asked the same question of just about every new acquaintance he fell into conversation with. He never asked conventional questions such as "What do you do for a living?" It was always: "What have you done that you believe in and you are proud of?"

It was an unsettling question for people who had built their self-esteem on their wealth or their family name or their exalted job title.

Not that the old man was a fierce interrogator. He was delighted by a woman who answered, "I'm doing a good job raising three children;" and by a cabinetmaker who said, "I believe in good workmanship and practice it;" and by a woman who said, "I started a bookstore and it's the best bookstore for miles around."

"I don't really care how they answer," said the old man. "I just want to put the thought into their minds.

"They should live their lives in such a way that they can have a good answer. Not a good answer for me, but for themselves. That's what’s important."

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