SOMETIMES we are rewarded with brief glimpses of people who inspire us. Though we'll never really know them, never be lucky enough to be their friends, they enter our minds and settle in.
These aren't people who set global policies or start and end wars. They instead raise the volume of our inner voices, the ones that say "yes, yes, yes" to life and make the world a better place.
Mak Shulist, 9, who went to school in the St. Louis suburb of Ellisville, was such a person. He died recently of an out-of-control brain cancer.
When the Make-a-Wish Foundation was on his doorstep, the boy, blinded by his disease, awed even them with his request.
It didn't include Disneyland, a great athlete's visit, or a presidential handshake. What Mak wanted was a rock-climbing wall on the playground of Ellis Elementary School, which he'd attended.
Thanks to the foundation's money and community volunteers, his schoolmates were playing on it within two weeks. They were videotaped scaling the seven-foot wall and described the fun in detail to Mak. He died the next day, inscribing himself and his selflessness indelibly in the memories of his chums and his community.
Then consider Ella Graves, a native of Baltimore, Vt., where she was born in 1850. She died in 1918 in Wisconsin, without descendants. What she was doing there no one quite knows. No one knows much about her at all, except that she was born on a farm, went to a local school, and worked awhile in a Massachusetts hat factory.
No one also knows how Ella Graves saved $17,500, or why she decided to leave it to the town of Baltimore to pay poor people's hospital bills. Interest on her money, equivalent to a couple of hundred thousand in today's dollars, is still doing it. But since the town doesn't have poor people, any resident may tap Ella's fund for hospital expenses.
If more than one does, the interest, amounting to about $1,000 a year, is divided among them. Though people in Baltimore today know little about Ella Graves, in her own small way, this awesome woman keeps making the lives of some of them better.
My recent favorite glimpse is of Albina Cruces Vazquez, a petite 101-year old Mexico City woman with an amazing presence. She has taught school for 86 years, since she was 15, and sees no reason to quit.
"Man is the architect of his own destiny; I designed mine and I have lived it," Ms. Cruces told a Washington Post reporter in her office at the Eduardo Novoa Elementary School.
She has been principal and taught in the warehouse building that is the school since she opened its doors in 1947. Back then the windows were shattered, the ceilings were falling, and students were expected to bring in bricks once a week. It now has 15 teachers and 450 pupils.
The secret to her success? Keeping busy in a meaningful way. Exercising. Eating what she wants, but not lots of it. No booze. No cigarettes. No fried foods. And her mother, who raised nine children by herself.
"My mother taught us to have respect. She taught us that we had value. And she taught us to be free." Could a woman in any time or place have better instruction or a better instructor? Especially a woman in a Hispanic country where women still are expected to marry and raise kids.
Once she moved from her small city to Mexico's capital, she took advantage of all its offerings, especially in education. And when she turned 50, she began to visit the rest of the world.
It has changed, as everything does, along with the world she grew up in, but she is sure her core beliefs about teaching children will be passed on by them because of how she treats them.
"I never scold them," she told the Post. "I never hit them. I always ask them to think. Children respond when you talk to them, when you keep your promises, and when you respect them as human beings."
It is people like these who give their goodness to the world, not the villains of the evening news programs, and who give meaning to life.
Osama bin Laden, Afghani warlords, conservative neocons, suicide bombers, Fallujah insurgents, and alleged strongmen of the ilk of Saddam Hussein and Irani ayatollahs could learn from them how to put their stamp on the world.
It doesn't require overdosing on adrenaline, testosterone, or power.
It does take caring, and putting your money and your effort where your heart is.