From a very early age, we teach kids to identify themselves by what they can accomplish. When a baby can flip over from back to stomach, we ooh and aah; when she learns to sit up, we applaud; when she stands for the first time on wobbly, uncertain legs, we celebrate the triumph; and when she takes her first tentative steps, we announce that she’s becoming a “big girl.”
It continues throughout childhood – each physical or developmental marker brings another round of Facebook statuses, Tweets, videos and pictures. The first tooth lost. The first day of school. The first dance. The first game. Every achievement documented, celebrated, and cemented in the child’s head as the surest way to understand themselves.
I am what I do.
Naturally we don’t let that idea remain. We tell our children that they are more than their accomplishments. We try to instill in them that their value lies not only in what they can do, but also in who they are. We teach them that they are intrinsically valuable – even without doing a single thing, they are beloved and special and worhty. We say that, and then spend most of our time praising them only for things they do. It’s our default setting.
Heck, even Aristotle sad as much: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, it is a habit.” The connection between identity and productivity is dadgum hard to override, because we understand that there are bad things that happen when a person gets too caught up in what he or she can or can’t do. I mean, I’ve seen elementary school kids crushed because they didn’t get an A on a spelling test. I’ve seen high schoolers devastated because they didn’t get into the college of their parents’ choosing. I’ve seen adults completely adrift in life after losing a job they thought was their dream.
We are what we do.
Since we’re human, things are naturally complicated. We shouldn’t solely define ourselves by our actions, but our medium for expression as individuals is throughactions: thought, communication, creation. We cannot tell the world who we are unless we do something. But we go awry when we come to believe that what we do is all we are, and that when we can no longer do those things that make us us, then we are no longer someone who matters.
It’s what makes nursing homes so challenging. Same as hospitals. We hate being reminded we have limits; that the very thing that makes us feel alive – our physical/mental capabilities – will be stripped away. People struggle with aging because it’s a regression to the mean; it’s the universe’s way of telling us that we are finite, we are frail.
We are not gods in flesh.
When we come to the end of ourselves, we wrestle with the notion of value. Life becomes an existential cage match. If we cannot do, then what good are we? If we’re merely clogging up the planet, using up money and other resources better spent on those who can create, why should we linger? Why spend our last days as a museum piece that only teaches it’s hell getting old?
I’ve heard those questions from the lips of people who’ve gotten old, gotten beyond their prime years of production: why am I still here? What good am I?
My grandmothers both ask me that question when I go to visit. I look at them and I see life, my life, sitting there in front of me, and I wonder, how do you not know you’re valuable? I look at them, aged and beautiful, and all I can think of are things like sunshine and laughter and meals and hugs and wisdom and prayers and guilt trips and love. And I love them for ALL of it. Every bit. I don’t necessarily remember any one single act (though we do have a few stories to tell) but what I remember, more than the lifetime of doing, is the person who did it, and did it all, because she loved.
Maybe she can’t get her shoes on anymore. Maybe she doesn’t sleep well at night. Maybe she is reaching a point that she’ll require someone to watch over her the way all of us worried parents watched over our own children, someone who can encourage and celebrate each accomplishment, regardless of how small. Maybe all of that and more.
But there will come a day when neither one is here. When both will have gone the way of all people, when both will be a marker next to the marker for a good man who went before her. And when that day comes, I will wish not for her to do something for me, not for her to create or accomplish anything. I will simply wish like hell that she were still with me, that she still existed in a form I could hug or kiss or look at, simply because she’s who she is. My grandmother.
Funny, isn’t it? We spend so much time trying to do something, and not enough time enjoying who those somethings make us into. We think about that only in the end, only after it’s too late to truly appreciate the person for themselves. I think about friends and family today who would give anything to have just a little more time with a Pop, or a Nana, or a brother or sister or a child…
We are not merely what we do. We are more.
Love someone for that today.