Influence

The events of this week have me thinking a lot on an issue that has been on my mind lately. Most of us have, at one time or another, faced the question “What do you want to be known for?”

The best answer I have heard to this question is my wife’s. One of the things I love most about her is the talent she has for molding the written word – often to express exactly what I happen to be feeling at a given moment. Her answer to how she wants to be known is both very simple, and very profound. Ask her this question at any time and she will tell you she wants to be known “as someone who loved well.”

That’s kind of a jarring thought – at least it was for me the first time I heard it. The uniqueness of her answer was brought home to me again in a recent conversation with a dear friend about the difference between “being vs. doing.” In this conversation, as she always does, my wife gently but firmly argued that what one does is not as important as who one is . . . that we should strive to be known to one another . . . and to relate to one another . . . not on the basis of achievements or actions, but of innate qualities and characteristics. That we should love one another not for what we do, but for who we are.

Our friend thought very deeply about this, and then said, “I have to be honest, I don’t really think like that. I’ve always valued influence over relationship.”

As I played back over that conversation later, as I often do, I wished I had said more of what I thought in response. What I thought was: What’s the difference?

But that, it seems, is a tremendous problem with the modern world. Most of us value influence over relationship – I know I have for most of my life. I think that this is a symptom of drastically misplaced priorities . . . but I also think it’s a bit of a definitional dilemma.

Modernism, it seems, has set up “influence” as a matter of breadth . . . the person who touches the most lives, in the most places, for the longest amount of time, is defined as “influential.”

This week is a prime example. Barack Obama has been touted by talking heads the world over as “the most influential President in recent memory.”

But really, unless you are a member of his old state assembly district in Illinois, or a member of his inner circle of political allies, or a close personal friend or family member, has he really influenced you??

No, not really. The truth is that, as President, he will undoubtedly have a great deal of influence over nearly everyone who reads this – especially those of us in the United States – but the simple fact is that he is not YET a terribly influential person. Sure, he influenced a bunch of people to take a trip to the voting booth . . . and a smaller bunch to take a trip to Washington D.C. this week. But those are fairly minor influences.

I didn’t vote for Obama, and I have mixed feelings about what to expect from his Presidency, but I have no doubt that his actions will influence me over the next four to eight years. But if you were to compare him to, say, my good friend Wayne Jacobsen, the man who first introduced me to the concept of what I like to call “Postcongregational Christianity,” I would have to say that Wayne has had far more influence on my life. What’s more, given the number of people I know who have been touched by Wayne’s actions in the same way I have, I’d venture to say that he is, at this point, probably a more truly influential person than Barack Obama – or any politician, for that matter.

But most people, when asked about the influence of Wayne Jacobsen on their lives, would respond with “Wayne who?”

The problem is not, then, a misplaced priority on influence so much as it is a complete lack of understanding about what influence truly is. That rock star whose every album is ensconced in your iPod, that congressman you voted for that one time, that columnist you really like to read, or that talk show host you really like to listen to . . . these people are not influential. Not really.

Influential is your best friend, with whom you share everything. Influential is the spouse you fall asleep next to each night. Influential is the parent or child or sibling who teaches you more about yourself as you grow to know them more.

Relationship is influence. Those people who most influence my life do so precisely because I have a relationship with them . . . because I know them, and therefore I trust that what they say is of value.

I could try my best to write a best-selling book, to create a popular Web site, to become a name that is known beyond merely the circles of those who happen to know me personally. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind trying to accomplish all three of these before I die.

But if I can get to know one person in a way that lets them know I truly care . . . if I can say one word that causes someone to think – or rethink – about a topic or issue that is important to them . . . if I can truly touch one life in a way that is deep, meaningful and lasting.

That is influence.

One thought on “Influence”

  1. If the parenthetic (or is it an ellipsic) in your last paragraph truely defines influence, then you have influenced me more that you probably expect. You may not have changed my final positions, but you have certainly made me think about them differently, and moderate more than a little.

    Best to you both.

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