You know what I mean by this, right? We all say we are influenced by other people all the time, but what we really mean is we admire such-and-such, or we think so-and-so is quite remarkable, and we wish we could do something like that too. Sigh, change the subject. That’s not influence. When we’re influenced by someone, as opposed to just thinking they’re cool, we actually change the way we do something in the real, tangible world, not just in our imagination.
Influence means you’re affected in more than just in your emotions. Influence is not that feeling you get when you see someone doing something you consider amazing and you realise you’re not doing it and should be. That’s conviction. Influence is the feeling you get when you see someone doing something amazing and you think, screw this, I’m going to do that too. And you actually do.
I think we as a society have become swamped with the cult of celebrity. Whenever we see someone we’re told is “awesome” we’re unaccustomed to doing anything other than be intimidated into purchasing something to alleviate our sense of inadequacy. Awesome itself is now so twisted that it’s possible to become wildly rich and impossibly famous merely for being a self-publicising, vacuous narcissist with a fake tan and breasts made from the same material as Tupperware.
I would like to think I’ve been influenced by people like Mother Theresa and Germaine Greer, but it isn’t true. I love the idea of both of these women, and they are both truly awesome, but they way they are and the things they’ve achieved haven’t changed me in any tangible way. I think they’re cool, and I want to be like them both, but I haven’t done anything to facilitate this so far, although from what I understand, they both have been considered to be royal pains-in-the-ass, so perhaps I’ve been influenced by them slightly more than I care to admit.
While celebrity influence makes us passive and takes our money, true awesome toils away unrecognised and largely unappreciated. You’ll find true awesome occupied with some time-consuming work of art, some nondescript soup kitchen, some poorly-funded research project, some remote refugee camp, some medical journal publication, some revolutionary idea, some regional welfare distribution office, some sparsely furnished clinic, some repetitive award-salary job, some painful rehabilitation process, some deal-breaking relationship, or some unseen dinner table with four kids and one box of cereal left to last the rest of the week. True awesome minds it’s own business, tucks it’s boobs away where they belong and just gets the hell on with it. True awesome couldn’t give a shit if you are influenced. It’s got important stuff to do.
Influence is not a passive or an academic process. It’s raw-heart stuff that makes you intrinsically and actually change the way you are. Influence is what happens when you see someone doing something ordinary and it seems incredible to you, and you know you too have to transform yourself to do that thing – or something that has the same effect – or else die.
Here are some of the people who’ve influenced me.
Sister Mary: Sister Mary was a nun at the Catholic church I went to with my best friend between the ages of about four and six. I met Sister Mary at a BBQ lunch at my friends house – that’s right, my best friend had nuns come to her house for BBQ lunch. I know. I sat next to Sister Mary for lunch this particular day and I felt like I was sitting next to Gods personal assistant. She had an aura. It was terrifying. I remember putting my knife in my mouth to lick off some tomato sauce and Sister Mary said “You must never put a knife in your mouth. You might cut your tongue and bleed to death.” Oh, thank you Sister Mary! Thank you God! How special a little girl was I that God would send his assistant to personally save my life! It was then I knew I wanted to be a nun more than anything when I grew up. Unfortunately, nobody I met would help me convert to Catholicism in time before I lost my virginity as a teenager and ruined the plan. However, I will always remember the effect the nuns had on me; they seemed so special, so far away from people and so close to God, and I never stopped wanting too that kind of relationship with Him. And I’ve never stopped pursuing it.
Rickie Lee Jones: I was about fourteen when I first saw the cover of this album. It was the early eighties, and I’d just started singing in bands. She was not like any other woman in music I’d ever come across in my life. I got the record, and played it until I knew it back to front. The boys in the bands I sang with wanted me to sing Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, but I wanted to sing whatever the hell it was she was singing. Rickie Lee sang like a honky guitar, like a jazz saxophone, like a sassy blues piano. I learned I could make sounds and be singing, make breath and be singing, make emotion and be singing. And I learned to wear a brown beret and smoke skinny cigars. Oh, yes, I did.
Anne Lamott: I’ve never met author Anne Lamott, and I haven’t even read all of the books she’s written. I’m led to believe her works of fiction are excellent, but I am allergic to fiction, so I’m yet to find out if this is true. It is Lamott’s works of non-fiction and memoir I have found transformative. And only quite recently, too. I read in a Rob Bell book how she was his favourite author, so I just Googled her and ordered the first book that came up. About a dozen pages in, I was changed. I knew I had to write or die trying. Lamott set me free. Prior to reading her books, I had despaired of ever writing authentically, admitting I was a Christian at the same time. Don Miller gave me hope. Anne Lamott unpacked the hope, tied string through the little hole in the top and hung it around my neck. Whenever I doubt myself, I look at the hope on the string and I know I can be myself and write, and everything will be okay. Oh, and she has sick dreadlocks.
Jan Harris: You probably haven’t heard of Jan Harris. She was my pastors wife back a few years ago now. Jan was a unique person, I’ve never known anyone else like her. She wasn’t your quintessential pastors wife; she felt uncomfortable speaking to crowds, didn’t preach, and didn’t preen. She was slim, with nut-brown hair and clear, tanned skin. She had wrinkles, She didn’t wear make-up. She baked. And she was Welsh. When she talked to you, it was like she was singing you a Christmas carol with your name in it. She looked natural – but not sun-bleached pseudo natural – natural like she grew on a tree and fell ripe to the earth. And it was like she fell to to the earth in other ways too. Jan had this way of leaving you feeling like you’d just been loved from the inside out, in the best parts of yourself. She loved sincerely, simply and purely. It must have been hard work – a pastors wife has many expectations to fulfil – but she made it seem like you were the most important person on earth when she was with you. We all loved her, to pieces. Jan loved Jesus, Jan loved Vince, her husband, and Jan loved her tribe of children. I learned so much about how to wife and mother just by watching Jan just go about her day. Late in Jan’s pregnancy with their fifth child, she suffered a sudden brain haemorrhage. The baby was taken by caesarean, but Jan died soon after, never having woken from a deep unconsciousness. Our beautiful Jan was gone. The family was devastated, the church was shattered. But even if Jan had never left us, we would never have been the same for having known her. That saying, “People will forget what you say, and people will forget what you do, but people will never forget the way you made them feel.” That was written about Jan. We who knew her will never, ever forget what it felt like to be truly loved by an amazing, Godly and beautiful person. Knowing Jan changed me for ever. I cannot think of her without feeling chagrined for having not loved people in a way that they could truly feel.