I’m in the middle of David McCullough’s John Adams. It’s a great book in many respects, not least because you come away from it with immense admiration for John Adams and his remarkable personal ethics. Adams held himself to the highest of standards, and although he constantly fell short (in his own estimation), he never stopped trying (clichéd as that might sound). What I find so interesting about Adams is that he possessed the clearest of visions for what it means to live a good life and be a good person: You study hard and you work hard, in order that you might serve God, your country, and your family (and in that order, too). In a letter to his son, John Quincy, John Adams extolled him to work hard at his studies, for “You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.” Is it that easy?
For the first time in my life, I’m no longer a student. At first, I felt as if I’d lost my purpose, my point of being. I agree, very much, with John Adams that one must study well in order to become a good person, help the country, and, if I may elaborate a little on behalf of John Adams, get that good job that enables you to help the world. Being a student, and defining oneself as a student, is the easiest thing in the world, for there are so many different kinds of students that the term itself almost loses meaning. I happily proclaimed myself a student for twenty years because I was proud to be “that” kind of student—the kind that studied hard for the sake of learning, helping the world, and living a good life.
But now I’m done with my studies, and I’ve got that job (well, I don’t have it currently, but I will in my next rotation) that hopefully will help the world. I’m happy about that, and I’m proud, too. But what happens now? How do I go about living this life for which I’ve faithfully prepared for the past twenty years? And how in the world do I define myself? As a lawyer? As a public servant?
Most people, I’ve discovered, invest their life in and define themselves through their occupations. (It doesn’t help that the default get-to-know-you question among people I interact with is: “So what do you do?”) I have never thought that was going to work for me. It’s not just that everybody hates lawyers (although, admittedly, that’s a big part of it). It’s that I don’t want people to think that’s all I am: a lawyer, a professional, a yuppie. To me, these are the types of people who think it’s fun to buy dress clothes and who enjoy boasting about their late nights at the office, the prestige of their firm, and their top-1% career ambitions. These are the types who wear their federal employee badges on the train because they want to be defined solely by their profession and by their status in life.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with defining yourself as a professional. But that’s just not me. It doesn’t capture what I want out of life.
Under the tutelage of John Adams, I realized that what I want most out of life is to be a good and kind person, love my family, and serve my God and my people (you see: I’m updating Adams’ philosophy for my own nefarious ends). My job as a lawyer helps me, in one small way, to serve those ends. But it’s simply one vehicle, one conduit, one means. It paints a picture of only a small part of me.
In the end, to recognize what makes me be the absolute best version of myself, to see what truly suffuses every facet of me and always, always, makes me strive to live that good life, I need to see myself through the eyes of the person who loves me the most—the person who makes me into the best person I can be. And that’s Tanner—my husband.
Our relationship, our love for each other, is the most important part of my life. It’s what defines me—and, more importantly, it’s how I choose to define myself. I didn’t necessarily expect that, but that’s the way it is.
So if someone asks me what I am, or who I am, or what I do, I’ll tell them that I’m somebody else’s person, just as proudly as I used to say that I was a student, studying hard and learning to someday save the world. In just the same way, being Tanner’s person enables me, in every single way, to work harder, be better, be kinder, and to do more good. It’s not just a conduit, or a vehicle; it’s transformational. Is there anything more important?