Scanning over the directory of names on my Facebook friends list, I see a few friends of friends; but for the most part, the names that I see form a road map of my life. There are relatives from both my direct family and Mary’s. There are people I’ve known for a lifetime or a few years. A few know me from early childhood. Many I’ve known professionally: they’ve been co-workers, bosses, professional colleagues. There are some whom I’ve gotten to know through community engagements or consulting projects. There are people from the communities I’ve been part of. And then there are the students, a handful on the list who are part of the thousands I taught over the years: people in their late-40s and 50s who are cemented in my memory as teens; and people whom I taught in community college or graduate school as adults and who now have a few more grey hairs than when I first met them.
Over my lifetime, I’ve had an odd memory. I’m awful with names, but there’s something that keeps conversations in my mind. I can recall discussions that I had in the 1970s almost verbatim. For many years, I recalled every conversation with that detail; but now with time, age, and volume, my memories of discussions aren’t all as vivid or complete. They’re still there, just in less clarity. While I’ve always had challenges recalling a person’s name immediately, I can still remember enough of our discussion about a mother’s illness, a sister’s triumphs, someone’s struggles whether to attend graduate school, how much the person loved a particular breed of dog, or a hundred other minute details that seem glued to the neural pathways of my memory.
Through these recollections of others, I see my own life. I’ve actually learned how to live in the world through others. Sociologists tell us that we become habituated to the norms around us by interacting in our worlds. That’s true for my life. People showed and told me how they survive tragedy, how they celebrate joy, how they cope with challenges and success. And I learned how to follow the examples they set – not mirroring their experiences, but certainly by using them as templates for my own actions. Sometimes those are difficult experiences as I learned who not to trust or who was only out for self-gain. But, on balance, those were small moments where I learned much and moved ahead.
I’ve often heard that life doesn’t come with an instruction manual. In my case, it does. It’s a manual that’s authored in chapters of others’ lives, expanded through each interaction with them. I think that’s why I recall so many conversations. Those memories of conversations aren’t just facts about others’ lives. They’re a roadmap of the growth I’ve experienced. It’s a wonderful symbiosis of connections where I’ve grown and evolved and become with each person I get to know. That list of Facebook friends is more than a list of names since each name is the basis of a memory that has helped me to understand life further.
In the auto-biographical chapter I wrote for African American Males in Higher Education Leadership, I noted that my life comes from a long historical lineage that informs and shapes it. In that book chapter, I wrote how my life, like the great Nile as it fertilizes river valleys downstream, was shaped by what comes before until it’s eventually able to offer something to others. Since I wrote that chapter, though, I’ve come to believe that I’m also shaped by more than what came before me. My life gets enriched by each conversation and event that is suggested by the names on the Facebook list and well beyond it. Life, for me, has been a fortunate exchange of ideas, habits, and values.
At this stage, I’m fortunate that some folks call me “mentor.” That’s something I’ve learned to be as I’ve known people who’ve shown me how to fill that role. As I was maturing, I had people who checked in on me, helped me to develop the skills and knowledge I needed to have the impact I wanted to have, and let me gently know when I was heading off course. Now, as I’ve become the mentor, I’ve learned that one aspect of that role is living to a standard. The righteous fire to change the world of my youth has been tempered by time and experiences that sometimes give me thoughts about taking it all easy and not taking any difficult routes. However, being engaged with younger folks reminds me to make choices that are often as challenging as the ones I fought through in prior decades. I may not be on the same leading edge that I was 30 years ago, but my interactions with others remind me to keep pushing whatever edge that’s before me.
It’s more than not wanting to let down others or appearing to look like I’ve given up. It’s actually more about being forced to live by the same internal standards that have driven me throughout my life and not compromise because it’s easier, I’m older and more tired, or a hundred other excuses that I’d otherwise have. To be other than whom I’ve been would negate how I lived the rest of my life. It’s my connections to other, often now younger, people that keep me accountable to remain whom I’ve always wanted to be.
So at the start of this new year of 2022, as I’m mid-way through my 70th cycle around the sun, thank you to all who’ve shared and continue to share your lives with me. May we all continue to enrich each other in the year ahead. Happy new year!