-the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others.
-the action or process of producing effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of another or others.
-a person or thing that exerts influence.
verb (used with object)-to exercise influence on; affect; sway.
-to move or impel (a person) to some action.
I’ve been thinking about influence lately. Who has influenced me, who I have an influence on. Reflecting about what has shaped me and the people who have helped mold me into the person I am. I’ve been asking myself what kind of influence do I want to have on others and who are the people who I believe God intends me to have influence with.
As much as we’re told in our culture that nobody can make us feel something without our permission, the truth is, we are people who are influenced. We are shaped and molded by our experiences, our interactions, our relationships, our circumstances. We aren’t captive to those things, but we are influenced.
I can look at my life and point to places and times that I have allowed myself to receive poor influence from others as a result of not knowing or believing that I deserved any better.
But I have also been graced with a several people who have been positive influences in my life, those who have helped me form my thoughts, beliefs, principles, and actions. Some of these people have played huge roles in my life, while others may have been part of my life for just a brief season or interaction.
When I think about people of influence, I think about Mr. Dallas, my high school English teacher, who told us, kids in a rural mining town, high in the Colorado mountains, stories about his time in the Peace Corps, living in Greece and Turkey where they would cliff jump into the Aegean Sea. Mr. Dallas’ stories turned my heart toward a world that was bigger than that little town and I began to dream of life away from that place. One day, he looked me in the eyes and said, “Sarah, you’re better than this,” meaning the smallness of my high school perspective…that certain boy, that nowhere town, that kegger I was going to that weekend…and something about the way he said it--you’re better than this--I chose to believe him, going against everything I’d previously believed about myself. So when he told me I should apply to this fancy, schmancy liberal arts college in Chicago, I listened. And I thanked him a few years later when I was traveling through Greece and Turkey myself as part of that college’s study abroad program, experiencing a world I’d once only dreamed of.
I think about my dad’s friend Joy, who was smart and sassy, and one of the strongest women I ever met as a kid. Joy talked about everyone having a “love tank” and, in our interactions, we could choose to either make a deposit into someone’s love tank or a withdrawal. The way that Joy talked about this, I felt inspired to be the kind of person who was more prone to making deposits.
When I think about influence, I think about Michael. I met Michael right after I started going back to church in my early 20’s. I’d been burned by the church and, I felt, by God. I had a deep ache in my soul that had landed me back in church, but I was wary. I joined a small group, and Michael was one of the leaders. He was a really cool guy, smart, and fun…but he also was crazy about Jesus, and back in those times, I really did not think all that could co-exist. But the more I hung out with Michael, the more I saw that he was really sincere. He asked me great questions about who I was, he listened to my story about where I had been, and he shared about who he had been before his encounter with God. Michael proved to me that not all Christians were judgmental, goody two shoes fakers. Michael gave me the hope I needed to take the next step back to following Jesus.
I think about my friend Rachel, who I met for the first time in the Phoenix airport as I was about to begin my Holy Yoga Instructor training. The first thing I remember about her was her enormous smile, her bright, shining eyes and the way she wrapped her arms around me in a hug as we met. She was one of the teacher trainers and during her first class, my body became so exhausted, I shamefully collapsed into child’s pose and had what felt like an epic emotional collapse. You know, the kind of cry that involves a lot of snot and choking while you try to breathe so that no one will notice how you are crying. I was trying to figure out how I could slink out of the room of 60 other students and hitchhike the three hours back through the desert to the Phoenix airport, when all of the sudden, I felt hands gently massaging my back, while the voice of the teacher hovered above me. It was Rachel, who found it in her to keep teaching the rest of the class who was still moving while she comforted me and made sure I knew I had no need to go anywhere. As far as she was concerned, I belonged right where I was. Rachel has influenced me to share the idea that Holy Yoga is for anyone who wants it, regardless of their physical strength or flexibility. It’s a place where you’re going to be loved and accepted just as you are.
I think about my sister Hannah, who with a diagnosis of Down Syndrome, lives a life of courage, passion, and adventure. Hannah likes almost everybody, including (and especially) herself. Hannah has no need for pretense. She loves a thrill and because of her influence, I once went on the Tower of Terror at an amusement park with her, and for that experience, I may never forgive her. :) Hannah teaches me about living honestly and with grace.
When I think about influence, I think about my writing teacher Maureen, who hosts these great classes and workshops on creative writing (find out more here). But Maureen often reminds us that, in her classes, it’s a lot like the hokey pokey—you put your whole self in and shake it all about. Maureen teaches us the mechanics of good writing, but also asks us to explore our deepest selves to get to material. And as she does this prompting, she holds a space for the stories that emerge, and we are somehow healed for having taken part. Maureen has shown me what it means to hear people’s stories and to offer acceptance and camaraderie in this thing of being alive and human together.
And I think about my husband. J has helped me rewrite the book on what it means to love, to do relationship and family, to practice honesty and forgiveness. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t hold grudges, who looks for the best in people, who attributes positive intent to other’s behavior. He doesn’t look for faults; he doesn’t even know how to be suspicious. All of this is awesome to have in a person that you share a living space, a bank account, and the responsibility of three little people with, by the way. J is teaching me how to truly trust and love.
I could sit all day and tell you about Professor Eskilson, who insisted we call her Arlene, and my wise and noble friend Julie, and about the kids with special needs I used to work with, and so many others, and maybe someday I will write all those stories, too.
But what I really want to do right here and now is to get you thinking about your own stories, and who it is that has influenced you to become the person you are. Who has shaped you for the better? What have they taught you? How are you different because of their influence?
And then, after we’ve looked at how we’ve been influenced, we can begin to look at the kind of influence we want to be for others. For me, I want to encourage dreams, like Mr. Dallas. I want to fill people up, like Joy. I want to be authentic in my faith, like Michael. I want to accept people as they are, like Rachel. I want to seek adventure and love myself, like Hannah. I want to hold people’s stories with respect and tenderness, like Maureen. I want to love without reservation, like J.
And I want to hear about you…the people who have influenced you and the kind of influence that you want to be on the people around you. Because I’m coming to believe that if we take this idea of influence seriously, we’re going to make the world a better place and we’re going to be telling good stories with our lives. You have the opportunity to be the somebody who made a big difference for someone else. So, please, join me in this pursuit of influence. I can’t wait to hear your stories.