I recently finished re-reading The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I don’t remember when I first came across the stories or the last time I read the series, perhaps 40 years ago. I loved the movies and have enjoyed the deeper dive into the characters, their tragedies and their triumphs, through the rich language Tolkien uses throughout the books. The trilogy presents many, many themes but one particular thing I noticed in its reading was the clear sense each character had of himself or herself. They all seemed to have little doubt of what they were about or where they fit in the story.
That is not to say that they didn’t struggle, experience degrees of despair, or that they always made perfect choices. Like all of us, they were flawed in their own ways but each stayed true to their character, to the moments they faced, and to their sense of destiny in the greater story. Of course, these are characters written to display such traits and Tolkien idealized and lionized in ways that made sense for the broader story. He didn’t spend much time exploring the self-doubt his characters must have felt but instead focused on developing the rich texture of their story as they moved about his world.
A few days ago, one of my sisters (I have six) called to catch up. She mentioned that she had been reading my recently published book of poetry, Traveler, and had connected with a few of the poems in how they aligned with some of her own experiences. Her comments centered on how reading them caused her to stop and think about her own season of life in a deeper way. Our conversation reminded me of the characters in The Lord of the Rings as I was struck by the contrast of their sense of place in the story and how we so often roll along not really thinking about our place in our own story, or, in the stories of those around us.
To be sure, we are quite self-aware, social media has helped drive self-awareness to levels of self-obsession that are often quite unhealthy. However, the focus on self has been twisted out of the broader story of our lives and been put in its own drama, watched through the distorted lens of how we think others see us. We skim on the surface of how we appear, how we are liked, or how we are treated…all driven from our perception of an external view of ourselves warped by media, advertising, and the associated manipulations to which we are subjected in our consumption-driven world.
The truth of the matter is that most of us have little sense of how we are actually perceived, for good or bad, by those around us. So often, we underestimate our power to impact others while amplifying their impact on us by how we react. What we think they think drives us to highs or lows as we look for another “Like” or “thumbs up” on whatever we happen to be doing.
Curiously, most people tell us little of what they think and most of us think little of our broader place in the world beyond the immediate. Often, when we do get feedback, it is superficial, and when we stop and take a look around us, we’re giving little credit to how much our movements are impacting our world. In this sense, we are frequently guilty of forgetting who we are and our place in our own story.
Consider for a moment your place in the lives of those you love. If you look past your day-to-day responsibilities of caring for those around you what do you see as you role? Stop for a moment and consider how they might perceive you. What do they expect of you? What do they need from you? Now, think about how your movements through their days affect them. What impact are you having in what you say or don’t say? In what you do or don’t do?
A friend once described our place among people as either a thermometer or a thermostat. We’re either taking the temperature or we’re setting the temperature. We spend much of our lives reacting to the temperatures around us and giving little thought to the temperature we’re setting.
The truth is that you are a force. A real, directional, impactful, force moving through the universe. Your passing is creating ripples, most of which you cannot see. Your words and deeds are hitting against someone’s shore. Your example is setting someone else’s temperature. Your presence is bringing good or ill into the world around you and you have a massive place in your story and the story of many other people.
Our story is immeasurably nuanced with complex characters and complicated situations. We are given many choices and we exist within a chaotic world that moves fast and waits for nothing. Everything we do matters. Everything we say echoes. Whether we are careless or careful, intentional or cavalier, all around us are watching, reacting, anticipating, accepting, rejecting, and absorbing the energy we throw off. Or, feeling the energy we drain. We will always matter more than we know and our impact will always be greater than we expected. Frequently, we will be blind to it. Pride and humility will both conspire to limit our vision.
Own your story. Remember who you are. Stand for something. Claim a place in this world and plant a flag in it. You already have, even if you don’t realize it. Selfie-awareness does not equal self-awareness. i’m not suggesting more self-obsession but a healthier sense of what our presence is doing to, and for, others. Particularly those who really need us. And, if you remember who you are and you don’t like that person, change that person. If you want to have a different impact on the world around you, decide to be different. Then, make the choices that make a difference.