In January I read an article titled “6 Harsh Truths to Make You a Better Person”. It’s written in a style that is deliberately confrontational and provocative, but that’s because it’s meant to jolt readers off their butts and get them to do something. If you can’t get past the tone to the underlying truth of the article, go sit in your room for a couple of years and then try it again when you’re ready. I’ve read it about four times since I discovered it.
Basically, to turn a 4,000-word article into a very over-simplified short sentence, his point is that, “You are what you do, and the world only cares about what you can do for it.”
I’m not going to get into the full pep talk – you can read his article for that – but on reflection, I think the point is a good one. I, probably like you, find the attitude of “What have you done for me lately?” to be offensive. Just because I didn’t save the company $30,000 this week doesn’t mean the $30k I saved last week was valueless, you know? But that’s not really what he’s talking about and if you only read it on that level I think you’re missing the larger point.
I think it’s easy to slip into passivity as we go about our daily lives. We take for granted that we’re interesting people contributing to the good of the world and we never stop to ask ourselves: is that really true? What is the proof of that? Does spending every evening watching interesting TV shows qualify a person as “interesting” – or are the interesting people the ones making things of their own? We say, “Obviously I am a kind and generous person, why can’t people see that?” but then we snap at our coworkers and forget friends’ birthdays. We are what we do. What do you do?
That’s not to say I agree with everything the author says. He says the world only cares about what you can do for it but then gives the impression that “being a nice guy, honest, always on time, a great son to his mother,” etc, doesn’t count.
I disagree that being polite and kind and so on are not things you “do” and don’t count when considering what you have to offer the world. Of course they count. As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Treating people with kindness, with patience, with politeness, with well-timed and well-expressed honesty and so on – these are things people value, because they are things that make people feel good. They are also things you do, and they are skills that require practice (another very good article, by the way).
I’m not sure I’ve totally exhausted the lessons that can be learned from the article, but so far it has sent my mind down two specific paths.
The Effect of My Doings on Others & Life’s Greatest Tragedy
Not too long ago a friend observed, “When someone really brings something to my life it’s easier to miss them when they’re not around.” (The world only cares what you can do for it…)
In my early twenties I got hurt a lot because people in my age group, who I’d grown up with and saw at church every week, would regularly hang out together – and I regularly found out about it only after the fact. One time I got an out-of-the-blue call from my future boyfriend/husband. He said they were all at a particular restaurant and did I want to join them? Apparently he was the only person – out of about 20 present – who looked around and said, “Wait, where’s Ashley?” (This, for the record, was one of the things that laid the foundation for our future relationship.) I went, but I’d have done better not to; I was so hurt by the original exclusion that I wasn’t very fun to be around that day.
To be clear, I mostly don’t think this was a deliberate exclusion. I think that when they were all saying spontaneously, “Hey, let’s do such-and-such,” and started spreading the word to people they wanted to be there, they genuinely didn’t remember me. Because, I realized later, I didn’t add to anybody’s enjoyment when I was there.
Ouch. Also, oops.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the most tragic fate in life is to have no one who misses you. To bring so little to the world around you that your absence is not regretted, or perhaps, not even noticed – or worst of all, is actually a relief.
I’m trying to give more to people and be more miss-able. I don’t know that I’m where I’d like to be yet, but I’m trying.
But let’s flip the perspective around for a minute. When we do, we get another, unexpected application of the article.
Your Response to Others’ Doings is Also What You Do
I tend to feel that when asked, “Why do you love [insert name here]?” you’re supposed to be able to reel off a list. “I love them because they are x, y, and z.”
So when I think, “I love so-and-so because they’re smart, and a good listener, and whatever,” I’m saying: I love them because they do things that are of value to me. So… what happens when they don’t do those things and aren’t of value anymore? Do I really love them?
I watched a TV show some years ago in which a bodyguard-for-hire was about to put his life on the line so that a woman could be with the man she loved. Before he did, he asked her, “Why do you love him?” She gave him an almost puzzled, but joyful look, which said without a word, “I love him because of what he is, the entire picture of every tiny detail that makes him unique.” And he said, “That was the right answer,” and jumped into the line of fire.
This has obviously stuck with me, probably because it conflicted with my worldview. I couldn’t help wondering, “How can not having an answer be the right answer??”
But as I’ve gotten older and had more experience of caring and being cared about, I have come to see: that kind of love is, indeed, the most rare and valuable thing in the world. Even a single instance of it can transform a life.
Except… even then, the whole point of the article is that what you are comes out in what you do. If your mere existence fills me with joy, is that not the result of what you do – is that not something that is of value to me?
In other words, if I am only kind and patient, if I only remember and reach out to those who are fun to be around, am I really a kind person?
The only conclusion I can come to is that the only truly selfless love in the world is to feel that joy at a person’s being… when they are utterly miserable within themselves, and being horrible to you.
This is what I’m trying to get to. This is what I’m trying to do. And while I appreciate the “tangible” effects that article has had on my life – the recent uptick in blogging is due to it, as is the increase in the remembering of birthdays, and I’m happy about both – I don’t believe for a minute that those are the things that really matter in life. Those may be things you do, and they may even be good things to do, but they do not define your value to the world.