Life has its obvious defining moments: graduation, our first house or apartment, falling in love and getting married, seeing loved ones pass, fighting illnesses, memorable trips, finding success, experiencing failure. From a very young age we search for something to define us. We dress a certain way to fit in (remember emos?), we play sports or pursue an artistic hobby. Indeed, people are happier when they have something that they’re living for even if it’s just the next baseball game or piano recital or chance to go out and take photographs. We’re attracted to people who are passionate, who get animated when talking about what they love be it politics or fashion or van Gogh or the French New Wave. Whether we’ll admit it or not, all of us, to a certain extent, want our lives to be indelible, our existence to be remembered. Plato privileged writing above all other forms of communication for it is the most permanent. We want to define ourselves with something lasting, be it a published book or a successful business or simply goodwill towards others. In short, we want to matter.
The idea of legacy is a difficult concept to grasp, but it is the implicit driving force behind so many of our decisions and actions. And yet we zip through life trying to get to these big defining moments – our degree or wedding ring or job title — too often forgetting what the in-between steps — the steps that really define us.
But what exactly does define us if not a trophy on our mantle or a framed degree on our wall or a ring on our finger? Some say it’s our actions. Or perhaps it’s our intentions? Is it our thoughts, our attitude, or maybe just our day-to-day outlook on life?
There are the capital “M” Moments that define us like weddings and successful businesses and all that listed above. These moments are often public, to be shared with others. In fact, these moments often define us to others. But what defines us to ourselves? This is an important question for it is what lets us sleep at night and gives us daily happiness. If we know we’re a fraud or a fake we’ll never be comfortable in our own skin. The moments that define us to ourselves, often unnoticed by others, are manifold, but below are the ones that strike me as most influential, as most defining:
1. How We Order Our Coffee
Anytime we’re being served, whether it’s at a restaurant, department store, or at Starbucks, the way we treat those who are serving us speaks loads about our character. Some people say you can look at someone’s shoes or car or music taste and quickly figure out what they’re like. If you’re really wondering about someone’s character though, pay attention to how they order their coffee. There’s no practical reason to be kind and patient or even to tip decently, but those who look at these things as unnecessary — their time too valuable, their life too important — are usually people you don’t want to closely align yourself with.
2. Who We Keep Close
It sounds a touch calculating to hold a great deal of agency over who we befriend, but these are the people that will most influence us — so a little thought goes a long way. Close your eyes and quickly reflect on the best moments in your life. I imagine a little film played in your head (mine is in sepia for some reason), and you saw these moments fleeting quickly by. Now without knowing you I’d guess that nine out of ten of your best moments had someone else in them — someone close, perhaps a dear friend or even people you have deeply loved. Life is better lived together. Be conscious about who you choose to spend you life with for they also have a say in defining you.
3. What We Read
If we are what we eat then I’m a weird combination of pizza and Chipotle, but if we are what we read then I think of myself as infinitely more interesting, more like a Victorian-era British detective, a young man finding love amidst a totalitarian regime, a charming psychiatrist falling in love with his patient then falling apart in the South of France. We obviously don’t become the characters we identify with, but I believe we take a little from them, as if long-time friends.
4. Our Small Acts Kindness
It sounds dumb, but it can make a stranger’s day. Be the person that restores someone’s faith in humanity.
5. Good, Evil, and Our Choice in Perceiving the World
We could take it back to Rousseau and Hobbes and discuss whether humans are inherently good or inherently evil, but how we perceive the world isn’t necessarily a philosophical question. Rather, it’s an individual decision to be made every minute of every day. When we’re tired and grumpy and want more than anything to get home, eat dinner, watch a movie, and fall asleep, how do we respond to minor inconveniences? Do we burst into ninth degree road rage when traffic is bad or make a fuss when the train is taking forever to come? Is the world revolving around us, or can we, with a certain intentionality, get out of ourselves and see the world from a more realistic perspective? If we can’t ever see the world from another’s perspective what does that say about us?
6. Addressing Addictions and Naughty Habits
There are many things we dislike about ourselves. Throughout our lives we form habits, attitudes, and addictions that can be detrimental, but to let them define us would be the greatest misfortune.
7. The Dreams Seen From Our Deathbed
Do we give up on what we really want when times get tough? It’s nothing new for artists to hop into business consulting or advertising upon graduating. Once one realizes the serious difficulty of actually living out their dream to paint, write, photograph, or what-have-you it’s an understandable career move. Yet, I’ve always believed that if you stick to what you love and work to become the best at it, the best of both worlds — doing what you love and finding financial independence — can come. But, even if you don’t find artistic success, ask yourself how you’ll look back on your decision to give up on your dream when you’re on your deathbed. Maybe you’ll be glad you opted for stability. But maybe you’ll have wished you could live your life over again, if only to stay true to who you really wanted to be — to the person you should’ve been.