Monday, September 21, 2009

On being a Somebody

They don't warn you about the steady erosion of self-importance to the point where it can pretty much disappear the day after you retire.

We enter the world as the most significant event in our parents' lives, revered by grandparents, doted upon as the centre of their world, showered with praise for the most trivial achievements. By the time we are self-aware toddlers, we are at 10 on the Somebody Index (SI).

By high school graduation, we are invulnerable, and filled with delusions of future success. We know that our generation has invented both music and sex, and we will live forever. SI level 9.

College graduation has us convinced that we know absolutely everything worth knowing, and that the world is lucky to be benefiting from our presence. We're anxious for older folk to just get out of the way so we can show them how things should be done. SI level 8.

By 30-something, we've taken some hits, made some mistakes, watched others zoom by us on the career track. But we still see ourselves as up-and-comers. SI level 6.

By 40 something, it begins to dawn that many of those youthful dreams are not to be realized. We're aware the clock is ticking, but we're also at the top of our game, the seasoned pros who know all the tricks. Retail clerks and flight attendants start calling us "sir" or "ma'am," and we realize others are seeing us differently than we see ourselves. SI level 4.

At around 5o, checkout girls start calling us "sweetie," and it dawns that we are way past sex object status, having become just an object. SI level 2.

By 65, we have no importance at all, other than to a shrinking circle of family and close friends. We have been forced to accept humility. We are expected to putter, and not to interfere with those doing serious work. SI level 0.5.

I describe this as "Former Somebody" status and, for many, it's not an easy adjustment. I once had a conversation with a recently retired, previously famous, Chicago surgeon. He lamented that, whereas he had been treated like God before retirement, he had become "just another old fart" in his Florida retirement community. An extreme example of most senior citizens' stories.

I've concluded that the only defence against going sub-zero on the SI Index is to keep contributing in whatever ways we can, for as long as we can. Volunteering in our communities, small acts of kindness, advocating for a cause, playing an active role in the lives of children, being a good listener, offering comfort. Having a positive connection to the lives of others recharges our sense of self-worth, and it's in our own minds that the Somebody Index mostly resides..

Just be a somebody to someone.

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