Do you remember, perhaps wistfully, someone who has long been out of your life? The person might be a first love or a romantic interest who came along at a vulnerable moment. That individual provided something timely and touching, perhaps a feeling that you thought you would never have. Usually it was the possibility of love — the possibility of being loved and feeling loveable — something that hadn’t been experienced recently if at all; something that seemed hopelessly out of reach. And so, this person who opened the door to embracing that feeling — to a sense of being worthwhile and valuable — acquired a special value herself. She brought the “music” into your life and might continue to hold a special place in your heart.
Perhaps you felt that the lost love was too good for you — at least so you thought. The interest she had in you seemed a bit astonishing to you. And you were enormously grateful for her interest and the pleasure that she seemed to take in your company. If you were lucky, the relationship lasted long enough to change you for the better. And even though it ended with your heart breaking, you still carry inside of you a sense of gratitude and an enduring soft-spot for this person who you’ve likely not seen for many years.
There are ironies here, at least two I can think of. First, that your gratitude just might be a bit misplaced. You probably thought too little of yourself and too much of the object of your affection. Perhaps you placed her on a pedestal. You might have dismissed what you brought to the relationship: your good nature, your wit, your humor or kindness, or your own physical attractiveness. And so, whatever affection or interest you experienced that felt to be more than you deserved, might in fact have been just what you were entitled to: you were better than you thought.
Another irony is that, as much as you might still think of this individual from time to time, it is entirely possible that she almost never thinks of you. You did not change her life, even if she changed yours. Your role was more peripheral, less important. To her, you are another relationship in a history of such contacts, not the one that made an enormous difference in her life, as she did in yours. It seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? Yet that is the way life works.
But I think that the ultimate irony in these unequal pairings is that there is probably someone out there whose life you did alter, to whom you meant everything, and who you now hardly ever think about. In other words, the roles described at the start of this essay are reversed. And you may not even know (or remember) just how profound your impact was on that lover of the moment. For him or for her, that time together with you was much more special, decisive, and profound than it was for you.
It helps to see both sides of this. Both the over-valuing of another and the impact we make on people without really trying — just by showing up in their lives at the right moment and being ourselves. The most dramatic impact outside of a romantic relationship (and indeed one that has more influence) is surely that between a parent and a child, but bosses and friends can sometimes approach the importance of a romantic partner.
Therapists and teachers need to be mindful of this too, in their relationships with patients and students, respectively. Whether you help or you hurt another can be of enormous importance. And, if you’ve done your job especially well or especially poorly, you will probably be recalled long after the relationship has ended.
My high school friends and I take part in something called the Zeolite Scholarship Fund, about which a search of this blog’s archives will reveal more. One of the things we have done in addition to giving scholarships at our alma mater is to honor our old Mather High School teachers. We let them know how much they meant to us, at least those who made an important difference in our lives and are still living. Even decades later and long since they might have recalled any of our names, we remember them and their influence.
I suppose that the most appropriate metaphor for the way in which we unknowingly impact others negatively (and this can apply to teachers who were particularly poor or nasty) is one of walking down the street, being unaware and unconcerned (as we all are) of the very little creatures (bugs) that we might be treading upon. I know that this is an exaggerated comparison to the way that we are affected by others. But the point is that we are all pretty fragile, easily hurt by those who care less about us than we do about them.
Just something to be mindful of in any relationship, whichever end of it you are on. Like throwing a stone into a pool of water, the ripples can go on for a very long time.
A cropped version of the painting at the top of this page: The Kiss by Gustav Klimt