Are You a Role Model?

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Do you think of yourself as a role model? By coping with diabetes and your other problems, do you inspire others? Might be worth thinking about. I’ve seen beautiful examples lately of how powerfully people influence each other.

My friend Cesar works with homeless and troubled people. But when he asked his Goodwill job-training class in San Francisco if they had ever been leaders, they were baffled. Some got angry. “How can I lead anybody else when I can’t even stop drinking myself?” one woman asked.

Cesar disagreed. “You’ve got people you hang with, right?” he asked them. “People who see you every day? Well, those people pay attention to you, just like you notice them. If they see you acting the fool, they are more likely to screw up themselves. If they see you doing right, that encourages them to do better, too.”

He asked them about their families. Did anyone there think of them as a leader? And within the program itself, and in other places, did people ever look to them?

People thought hard. One man said he had a young nephew who sometimes asked him for advice. Another remembered that people at his last job would sometimes ask how he did things. You could see people straighten up and look more confident, remembering these experiences.

Martha, a woman who has been drinking, living in welfare hotels and on the streets for years, started crying. “I didn’t think anybody cared what I did,” she told me later. “Or even noticed. In my mind, I was completely alone. Now I know I’m still here. I still count.” She told me she was going to take care of herself a little better, starting by going to a clinic for treatment for the skin infections covering much of her arms and legs. “I’m going to go back to AA, too,” she said.

Disabled people often hear how inspiring we are. Some of us hate that, because nobody is trying to inspire anyone. We’re just trying to live. But I have learned to appreciate those compliments. If you make people feel better, what’s wrong with that? You can’t help it anyway. Even if your illness is invisible, as diabetes tends to be, people will notice you and respond to how you carry yourself, though they won’t tell you about it.

If you take care of yourself, your family will be more likely to value themselves (and you), too. If they see you being careful about what you eat, maybe they’ll eat right instead of gorging on junk. If they see you out walking, maybe they’ll think, “If s/he can do it, I can do it, too.” If they see you taking breaks and enjoying life, that might rub off on them.

We model negative behaviors too. If we’re not coping with our problems, or not taking care of ourselves, we can bring a lot of other people down with us or drive them out of our lives.

When I wrote about role modeling on my blog Reasons to Live, DJ commented, “It’s a primate thing — we are wired to imitate, and learn from each other. It’s pretty cool that any one of us, simply by our actions or attitude, can encourage others to be their better selves, or to just keep going.”

Many of us don’t think anyone is looking at us, but they are. A guy named Joseph swims at my Y pool. Joseph was born without arms. He swims by wearing huge fins and breathing through a snorkel. He can do a lot of things with his mouth. One day, he told me had just been to the supermarket, and the checkout clerk had told him how inspiring he was, being able to shop by himself and all. Joseph replied, “I’m sure if I knew what you were going through, I’d think you were inspiring, too.”

Everybody I tell that to thinks it’s a great answer. The clerk didn’t want to hear it, though. “Oh, no, my problems are nothing compared to yours,” she said. She hadn’t accepted yet that she was a role model. Have you?

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