Generations of men in one family placed their value on what they did instead of who they were. For Lisa Arends, this was the beginning of the end of her marriage.
Not long after we started dating, I accompanied my teenage boyfriend to his grandfather’s funeral. I had never met nor heard anything about the deceased; my first impression came from the pastor’s opening lines:
“It’s important to be nice, but it’s more important to be important.”
Surprised at the mutilation of the common quote, I turned quizzically to my boyfriend.
“He messed up,” he confirmed in a whisper, “But it’s accurate in this case.”
I spent the remainder of the service wondering about the life and priorities of a man who left his family with that impression.
Many years went by before I thought about that misquote again. I eventually married the grandson of the departed only to be abandoned a decade later with a text message. The years between were wonderful, filled with common goals and shared smiles. Which is why the abrupt end, complete with fraud and a felony, was so shocking and so puzzling.
As I sat crying on the edge of the bed one night, trying to force understanding into the tsunami that swept my life, the pastor’s words again came to mind. And this time, I thought not only of the grandfather, but also of the lessons passed down through the generations.
Throughout our relationship, my partner often expressed that his biggest fear was turning into his father. His father was a man who was once successful but squandered it away. His father was a man feared by many but respected by few. His father was an alcoholic who courted drink at night rather than his wife. His father was a man who went from top billing in his career to collecting unemployment. His father was a man who was unreachable to his son, there but not there. His father was once important but then lost himself as he lost success.
By watching his father and his father’s father, my husband had been taught that his worth as a person was based on his skills and his work. He had been led to believe that his value was closely tied to the value of his career. He had learned the lesson that how people perceive you is paramount to how you see yourself.
In other words, he understood that it’s important to be nice, but it’s more important to be important.
And so he worked hard to be important. He found respect and success in his field of work, always looking to gain new knowledge and skills that would open further doors. He never let the lack of a college degree hold him back; he essentially held his own courses, operating as both teacher and student. I was proud of him, but even more importantly, I think he was proud of himself.
As long as you’re feeling important, the perspective of that misquote is passable. After all, if you’re feeling good about yourself and your position in life, you’re more likely to be nice to others and have strong relationships.
But if you believe that it’s important to be important and then you lose your career, you feel lost. Worthless. Insignificant.
If you’ve been taught that your value is tied to your importance, rather than seek help, you’re likely to retreat.
And that’s exactly what happened to my husband. The job opportunities dried up. Shame crept in. And he hid.
He created an alternate persona that had never faced failure. Never felt shame. A version of himself whose importance had never been threatened. He created an imaginary income stream of credit while pretending to serve fictitious clients. He hid his shame behind a mask of success.
He began to drink, washing down the bitter pill of perceived failure with the numbing effects of alcohol. He distanced himself from himself all while pretending to be present with the people in his life. As his perceived worth fell, he became more concerned with the outward appearances of success, covering his shame with more expensive clothing and more desirable trappings. He wore a well-crafted mask of success.
The ironic part? Throughout all of this, the years of playacting and façade, he remained the most important person to me. I would not have thought any less of him if I had known about the loss of position. His value to me had nothing to do with the numbers on the paycheck or the title under his name.
I loved him for his gentle embraces when I was upset. The passionate kisses that would still distract even after years of marriage. The supportive words when I attempted some challenge. The sympathetic look in his eyes when I was sick. The generous spirit that would give to help others. The quick wit that always brought laughter. The dogged spirit that would never give up.
But while he was focused on being important, he neglected to be nice.
And that’s when the real loss occurred.
It’s so easy to forget what is truly important in life. To get so wrapped up in the next item on the agenda or the latest crisis at work that we relegate our relationships to the autopilot pile. To see our value in what we bring to the balance sheet rather than in what we bring to our partners. We often spend more energy on building our importance rather than building our connections.
But our kids don’t care about the letters that follow our name. Our partners usually care more about our attention and our presence then our position in life. Our friends seek us out for the joy and shared memories we bring, not the awards on our walls. The value and esteem built through our jobs only lasts until the next best thing comes along.
But to your friends and family, you’re always the best thing.
Self-worth should never be based on something external or something fallible. Instead, it comes from integrity, when our outward expressions match our internal beliefs. It comes from connections with others, relationships forming bonds throughout time and generations. It is based less on what you do and more on who you are.
It comes from being nice. To others, yes, but also to yourself.
Some days, I wish I could give my teenage boyfriend a hug and reassure him that his value came from within and not from what he produced. That at the end of our lives, the impact we have on the lives of others means more than any job title or position.
And I wish I could convince that young man of long ago that although it’s nice to be important, it’s more important to be nice.
Photo: Bill Harrison /Flickr