Have you ever noticed that we often get into our favorite things because of other people? You’re not born a Packers fan or a knitting champion or a soccer freak or a Republican. We develop those parts of our identities over time, as hobbies, interests and opinions are presented to us and we react to them based on who we are. If something makes us feel accomplished, included or fulfilled, we do more of it. If not, we pass. But most of the time, the original idea comes from someone else and we try it because of our connection to them.
Last week I talked about how a tradition with a friend drew me into watching the Oscars every year. I’ve been a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan, in part because of hours spent in my step-grandfather’s gentle company, listening to him yell (he never yelled) at the tiny TV screen about batting stance and going to the dang bullpen, already. Later, when I met my husband, our mutual love of Atlanta baseball was one of the things that drew us together [and, incidentally, inspired that famous showdown scene between Suzanne and Dylan at Turner Field]. Eventually, we’d name our first son after the beloved grandfather who inspired that passion in me. None of those connections are just about baseball, of course. But the things that interest us become the things we talk about. When we talk, we connect.
When other people influence our interests, they participate in forming who we are. As we connected around baseball — and one or two other things — my future husband introduced me to Judaism just by being himself. It was never his idea that I convert, but he brought me to the faith by being its most honorable and true representative, at least in my eyes. He still is that, and I see our little boys becoming that, too.
In a less dramatic way, my best friend
forced encouraged me to learn to love country music in high school when we carpooled to school together. (She was in charge of the radio because it was her car – I’d lost my parking space due to excessive tardiness). If she hadn’t blasted me with Garth Brooks and George Strait every morning, would I ever have “met” Dylan Burke? I often tease that same friend who has allowed herself to betray alter her Southern sensibilities by becoming both a Bears and a Cubs fan while cheering alongside her Chicago native husband — who, by the way, she also beguiled into embracing country music with a passion.
For those of you who are more independent-minded, all this may sound like one big wishy-washy compromise. Aren’t we supposed to be who we are and have others love us for just that? Well, yes and no. Unconditional love (or maybe sometimes it’s unconditional acceptance, which is harder) is perhaps the most essential component to a successful relationship. And yet, the research of highly renowned researchers Drs. John and Julie Gottman shows that allowing yourself to be influenced by your partner is one of the keys to a strong, happy marriage. (The research actually suggests that it’s more important for men to be influenced by their wives than the reverse, but I believe both are important, especially when the relationship stands on basically even footing to begin with).
The Gottmans talk about influence in terms of marital conflict, but I see it as an essential part of every good relationship. When someone recommends a good book to me, for example, I will often think of that person as I’m reading it. Even if we never come back around to discussing it together, my connection with them alters just a tiny bit because we now share an experience we didn’t share before. If you walk into a room with an openness to be influenced by the people in it, your heart is ready for new experiences and new connections.
Obviously, I’m not talking about joining a cult, buying time shares or becoming a Cubs fan just because a friend suggests it. Not every influence is a healthy or positive one. I’m not suggesting we teach our kids to cave to peer pressure and make unwise choices under the influence of others. Your locus of control has to be within yourself at the end of the day. That said, I think it’s important to acknowledge that we have a lot to learn from one another.
Allowing ourselves to be influenced by others is an act of courage and vulnerability. The happiest people I know are the ones who freely acknowledge that they don’t have it all together, the ones who own up to their heartaches and imperfections, and turn to others for support. The ones who seem to have it all together (or do a good job pretending), who never apologize or complain or cry in front of others, or ask for advice and guidance, they’re the ones I feel sorry for. I’ve been there, and it’s damn exhausting, not to mention isolating, being right all the time. That’s why I make it a point to be wrong as often as possible. 🙂
I don’t write this blog
three times a week well, twice a week, as often as I can because I like being the center of attention. It’s because I love being the center of attention. Hey, we’re being honest here. But it’s also so that you and I can influence each other. When you comment on the blog or interact with me on my Facebook page, I learn a little something about you, and that changes me. It might be a microscopic change – another tiny bit of grist for the mill – or a major shift in the way I think about things. There was a time when I never would have considered blogging about a miscarriage or my struggles and guilt about our family farm. Or even owning up to my Jazzercise Jiggle. All that would have made me feel too vulnerable and exposed. But when I did, I got an outpouring of support from you, my online community. And in that outpouring, you let me know that I influenced you, too, by helping you feel more normal in your own struggles.
I’ll take that as a win, any day of the week.
I’m M.J. (Manda) Pullen, an author and mom in the Atlanta, Georgia area. I blog with humor and honesty about writing, publishing, parenthood, life in general and the many lessons I’ve learned the hard way. I seldom WUI (write under the influence).
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