A friend said these words to me one day when I was lamenting my dependence on someone else – likely the guy I was into at the time – for my own self-validation, and my tendency to allow myself to become the victim of others’ impressions rather than in believing in myself no matter what others saw in me.
I had quite a bit of understanding about what was wrong with allowing myself to be disempowered by others, and described the situation to my friend. (Knowing and articulating the problem isn’t usually sufficient to fix it, but it’s a start, and I had at least gotten that far.) My friend seemed to find my articulation admirable; she listened and then eagerly chimed in: “You’re exactly right! That’s what life is about, after all. Being the hero of your own adventure!”
That phrase summed up better than any other what I wanted to do in life – and what I saw myself falling short at right now, as I over-obsessed with what this guy thought of me and, to a somewhat lesser extent, what my friends, family, and the world at large did too.
There is something to be said, of course, for cultivating a good reputation. The Jewish ethical tractate Pirkei Avot says that “the crown of a good name” is superior even to the crowns of Torah, priesthood, and kingship. I do think there is something to be said for presenting a positive face to the world; among other things, the more one is admired, the more one ability one will have to influence others for the good. After all, we don’t often consider very highly the advice of those we don’t look up to. And secondly, the expectations others have for us often bring out precisely that aspect of us. I know I find myself acting better at some times than at others because I know it is expected of me. To paraphrase Calvin and Hobbes, it’s a lot easier to get by with doing less the lower you keep everyone’s expectations.
But neither of these reasons for cultivating a good name matters at all, compared to being the hero of your own adventure. Because really, if you cultivate a good name for the positive reasons mentioned above (influencing others for the good and being your best self), then the good name is just a means to an end: the end of doing what YOU know deep down is right in your life. If a good name is cultivated for a reason other than that one, than your attempt to create the appearance of good character may well create only that: its appearance. Ultimately, only you know what your hero would do if presented with the circumstances of your life – and only you can do it.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a relatively empathetic person, aware sometimes to a painful degree of how my actions affect those around me, and how I come across to them. I try to use this awareness for good ends, to be considerate and kind to others and to avoid making them uncomfortable, and it helps protect me against the hurt that can be committed by being clueless.
But there is another danger lurking in too much self-awareness, and that is being too good at coming across as the ideal of others.
All of us want to be liked, admired, applauded. It’s only human, and is especially understandable in today’s age, where pictures of photoshopped models tell us we should look as not even the most “beautiful” of us can, and facebook urges us to evaluate the special moments of our lives by the number of “likes” they receive. It’s easy to forget in this era of public façades and private loneliness, that facebook is only an allusion, that the real work of being a quality human being takes place in front of crowds, yes, but also especially in those most private moments nobody knows about but you.
Holiday time has a way of feeding insecurities. I went shopping today and bought expensive make-up at Sephora, something I do about once a year. I got home, put it on, and took a selfie (also a relative rarity for me), and made it my profile picture. For a few minutes (a few minutes!) no one liked it. And I’m somewhat embarrassed to report how long I stared in the mirror, wishing I looked different – more beautiful – than I did.
And while I was staring this way, a still, small voice inside me, as it were, spoke up and asked, “Is this what a hero would do, Melissa? Because no one asked you to be a model, and if you really think about it, I don’t think you’d want to. But to be a hero – that’s what you’re here to do. If you were to make a movie of your life to show from start to finish as an inspiration to young girls of how to live a meaningful life, would this part be on it? Or would you want them to forget the mirror, go our and live their dreams, and make the world better and – truly – more beautiful?”
I think it’s obvious what I answered.
My hope and prayer for all of us this Thanksgiving is that we be grateful for all that we have, for our family and friends and for our blessings of all sorts. But most of all, I pray that we are grateful for the opportunity to share our gifts with the world, whether we do so effortlessly or through much struggle. I hope we’re grateful for the opportunity to be the heroes of our own adventure, to partner in creating through our actions a world that reflects our values and our dreams.
(And hopefully our gratitude will look something like this. )