It was after some natural disaster – I’m thinking a hurricane or typhoon. I was struck by a picture of Jane Goodall comforting a chimpanzee. She was quoted as saying, “What can be more important?” I wrote it down at the time because I was offended. The disaster had taken numerous human lives and left many other people homeless. Millions of dollars in damage left local economies weakened. And Dr. Jane Woodall thought comforting an animal was the most important thing to do?

On reflection, I realized that Jane was just being true to her life calling, to what had become the focus of everything she did and said. Since her childhood, she had been fascinated with stories about animals in Africa. She didn’t go to college after graduation from high school, but instead, at the age of 23, she traveled to Kenya, where she lived with friends and found work as an assistant to the famous anthropologist Dr. Louis Leaky. From then on, she spent virtually her whole life studying the social behavior of our closest primate relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas. She learned and documented things no one had ever noticed before. It was because of her total dedication and intimate involvement with the animals that she was able to give the world this insight. She has been single minded. Even now, at the age of 84, she lives in Tanzania, East Africa, so she can be near her animals. So, in a time of great stress and danger, it was natural for her to think that comforting a chimpanzee was the most important thing she could do.

One of Jane Goodall’s best-known quotes is, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” In her own case, she decided early in life where she could make her difference in the world, and she stuck to her decision. When the disaster struck, she knew where she had to be. She couldn’t stop the storm, save injured people or rebuild damaged houses, but she could make a difference for one young chimpanzee.

Have you decided what kind of a difference you can make? Have you focused on it with single-minded purpose? Maybe that’s something for you to think about at the beginning of this New Year. Here’s a Bible verse for you to consider:

May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your plans. (Psalm 20:4)

Sometimes we assume our “heart’s desires” must be opposed to God’s will because we are selfish and sinful. But the psalm writer seems to be implying that your deepest personal desire is something good, something that should be cultivated and expressed. It’s part of what makes you a special creation in his image. God promises to give your heart’s desires to you and to fulfill the plans you make out of these desires. Maybe your problem is that you haven’t gone deep enough into your inner being to recognize what your true desires are.

I believe that by loving this chimpanzee, Jane Goodall was loving herself. Even beyond this, I believe that she was loving all of God’s creation and the Creator himself. Though she didn’t embrace religion, maybe embracing her true heart’s desire in that chimpanzee brought her into harmony with God’s redeeming love. I’d like to think so.

— Pastor George Van Alstine