When I was a kid my parents would often tell me that, as the elder child, I was supposed to set an example for my younger brother.
Initially I took this to mean that I was to share with him the wisdom of my extra four years, and encourage him to enjoy all the, shall we say, ‘creative‘ activities for which I was famous . I was all for the idea. It was useful to have a test subject for my theories and constructions.
As I grew older, however, it became apparent that what my parents meant was that I was to work really hard at school, miss out on a social life because I was studying, get the great grades, be awarded scholarships etc. That, in itself, I could have accepted, if my brother had been held to similar standards. I learnt quickly that there existed a very different set of rules for boys.
The first instance of this that I can remember was when I was about eight years old. I had developed a fascination for fire engines and fire fighters. Every time we drove over to visit Nanna, we passed the central fire station in our city. Dad would have to stop at the traffic lights outside and I would be able to enjoy a minute or two of pure delight looking in at the shining vehicles and equipment. When I announced that I would be a firefighter when I grew up, I was told that only boys could be firefighters. I was crushed. It seemed that no matter how good your grades were, your choice of job depended upon your gender.
During my teens, whilst I was studying and setting the example, my brother was out and about with his mates. He was allowed to go to the city with his friends when he was 12. I had had to wait until I was 16. The only social occasions I was allowed to attend were school dances….no dates until I had completed high school.
Deep down I knew that there was method in my father’s madness, that I was his ‘Best and Brightest‘. He didn’t actually use those words until he was over eighty years old. He didn’t actually use the words ‘I’m proud of you‘ either, but I knew he was. He would tell everyone about his daughter, the teacher, his daughter who was overseas, his daughter and his gorgeous grandkids, his daughter who could work one of those infernal computer gadgets. He would tell people he knew and, increasingly as he aged, people he didn’t know. So even though he never told me he was proud of my achievements, he told everyone else.
He expected a lot from me and I delivered on his expectations to the best of my abilities. The incident at the fire station was the one and only time that he told me that I could not achieve something that I had set my sights on. He encouraged me to dream big dreams, to make detailed plans and to work hard to execute those plans. And, I think most importantly, he encouraged me to take care of myself first, then worry about others later.
‘Take care of Number One,’ he would say, pointing at me. ‘You’re no good to anyone else, if you don’t look after yourself.’ I have taught my children that too. Be kind to yourself. Nurture yourself physically, mentally and spiritually. Set this example…that you are the best version of you that you can be.
The very best explanation of this that I have ever seen written down is in Max Ehrmann’s ‘Desiderata’. Read it. It is food for thought….a fine example for you to set for yourself.