Monday, July 1, 2013

Under the Influence

I had a conversation with someone about a year ago in which I accused her of being a bad influence on someone about whom I cared. It was not the ideal time to be having that conversation—middle of the night, tensions high. Neither was truly in the proper state of mind to have any sort of intellectual discussion, one because of anxiety and anger, perhaps other issues and impediments to logical discourse. And I don’t remember much of what was said, but I remember one rebuttal being issued, and it has stuck with me: “How can I be an influence on her? I’m younger than she is.” That struck a chord within me, made me consider how our actions influence those around us, and what responsibility we have to our fellow man. And I’m not talking about Christian influence here, though there is definitely some carryover between being a good Christian influence and being a good human influence. I’m merely talking about our ability to affect those around us.

A short time after that conversation, I was sitting in a counseling session, talking about my dissatisfaction with and anxiety concerning the path my life had taken, particularly the fact that I hadn’t yet begun to feel at ease in my job. It was in there, in that counseling session, that I vocalized that maybe I had missed my calling in life, had veered from the path my life was supposed to take. The counselor looked at me and said, “You don’t think you can be an influence there? All of those students you come into contact with on a daily basis. You don’t think you can be used there?” I’m paraphrasing, as I don’t recall precisely what he said, but the gist of his message was that I was in a prime position to positively influence future generations, to affect positive change. I knew that, deep down, but I was so focused on the negative aspects of my life, a life that seemed to spiraling out of control at the time, that I had ignored the fact that I could make a difference for those I encountered day after day.

 But that point, that I could be an influence in more areas than just reading and writing, was one that I was reminded of last evening. All of my former students, high school and college, have my Google Voice number, and one of my students texted me last night to ask my advice. He is going through some major life changes and wanted to know what I thought he should do. He said that he had always come to me for advice at school, that I was a “pretty cool guy” and always gave good, intelligent advice. I was honored that, even though I’m no longer his teacher and will never be again, he still trusted me enough to ask for advice. I gave him my best, most honest answer and wished him the best.

But the conversation, brief as it was, made me start thinking about influence, particularly how to be a good influence and whether or not I am. I try to be one. I try to keep my temper in check and see the world from others’ perspectives. I have to admit that a lot of this, this learning how to think in a manner that is less egotistical, to think in a manner that doesn’t put me at the center of some tiny universe around me, comes from my reading and teaching David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement speech every semester for the past three years(which you can find here: When someone cuts me off in traffic, I try to put myself in his/her shoes, wondering if perhaps, as Wallace mentions, it is I who happen to be in that person’s way, whereas once I’d have been far more apt to cuss and flip the person off. That’s not to say my tongue doesn’t sometimes get the best of me and I don’t sometimes allow my road rage to flare up. But I quickly try to control my thinking when this happens, for not only do I believe this is the right thing to do, but also because I never know who’s watching. And who knows, maybe this calm reaction in a seemingly mundane instance will be noticed.


If someone had asked me when I was 18 or 19 where I would be by my mid-twenties, if I didn’t rattle of some pipedream of being Jack Kerouac, or being a musician, or owning my own cafĂ© and bookstore, I’d have answered that I’d be a teacher. The last possible answer I would have even considered as a possibility would be a divorced single father whose attempts at teaching seemingly failed. But I know I was a positive influence, in some way, to my students over the past three years, perhaps more so to my college students, but at both levels I was able to affect some positive change in those I encountered. I had countless conversations with students during and after their time in my class in which they thanked me for caring, for being there for them, for helping them, for not giving up on them when so many others had. And now I’m left wondering what comes next. I’m unemployed, looking for a job where my talents, whatever they may be, can be put to use for good.

Which takes me back to the start. “How can I be an influence on her? I’m younger than she is.” Never underestimate your ability to be a positive influence on those around you. It may be a smile at a stranger, or a seemingly innocent “How are you?” or any of the other trivialities we go through, those seemingly banal activities that make up the everydayness of every day. But people are watching. And if you claim to be a Christian, it seems people watch a little more closely, for better or worse. But this isn’t about Christianity, it’s about being a good person. A good influence. Here’s to hoping I am.

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