The well-known adage goes, “tell me your friends and I will tell you your future.” Each day, we interact with hundreds of people at varying levels. Whether it takes the form of a thank you to a store attendant, a meal with family, a random interaction at a coffee shop, or a conversation with a colleague, these social relationships shape who we are and how we see the world. Ironically, though, we seldom reflect on how each of these connections, no matter how big or small, influence our lives, our impact on others, and in combination, the world.
To the reader, I request that you think about these questions: how have your personal relationships, most of which were likely unintentional, shaped your perspective on life? Take, for example, educational relationships — parents and school-teachers. Did a particular moment you shared with one of these people motivate you to pursue a particular path in life? Or peak your interest in science, art, or politics? Or inform how you think about problems and the world around you? As you grew older, what kind of friends did you make and what was the substance of your conversations? Whether human relationships are coincidence or fate, what we take from social relationships has a causal role in our own lives and the events of the world.
In relationships, we spend more time comparing ourselves to others than wondering how each end of the connection matters. Comparison is a problem that plagues our personal and social identity. Instead of contemplating how our relationships have made us who we are, we often lose ourselves in other people. We forget that each person plays an important role on the stage of humanity. In any given performance, actors or actresses do not know what impact they have on the audience or even each other. We are no different. It is only with unending reflection and research that we can begin to understand the impact that we have, or will have, in the world. As humans, all we can do is look back on our relationships and see how they have created ourselves and influenced others. Ultimately, who we are is inextricably tied to the interaction between the ends of the thousands of the social connections and networks we have made. As Bruce Mau said, “if everything is connected to everything, everything matters.”
The next time you think about the people around you, try not to think of how you could be better or worse than who you perceive them to be. Even if they happen to be your best friend, you do not always know what they are thinking, how they perceive their life, if they believe in their impact, or how they will be remembered by the world. More succinctly, try not to let the grass always be greener on the other side. Instead, reflect on who you believe yourself to be and how your relationships tell the story of your life. Each of these relationships, if studied and mused on carefully, can reveal a more complete picture of the important role that each person plays in the social world we inhabit.
Walt Wittman famously penned:
The question, O me! so sad, recurring — What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here — that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Ask yourself: what verses have you contributed? And how are others hearing them? Instead of wondering if you and your relationships matter, it is time to start wondering how.