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Show me Your Friends

 There is an old saying “show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are”, or as initially quoted by Sancho Panza in the novel Don Quixote de la Mancha, “dime, con quien andas, dezirte he quien eres” (roughly translated to “tell me the company you keep, and I will tell you who you are”. But what does this have to do with us? Surely at our age we aren’t swayed by the company or influences of others? Surely we are well past that?


In fact, as human beings we are never free from the influence of others. Our thoughts, beliefs and actions are constantly moulded by the people around us. They may be in our neighbourhood, family and workplace, but they all have an impact. Interestingly, with increased age, and particularly in retirement, this influence can be more profound as our circle of friends and relations gets smaller with time. In this situation, it’s a really good idea to re-evaluate our friends and acquaintances, and make sure that their views and beliefs align with our own core values. This is not to say we should “clean out the closet” or simply dump long-standing friends and relations just because they don’t share our point of view! That would likely be a very negative approach, leading inevitably to loneliness and isolation. Instead it is important to know who we are, and be aware of who and what influences us.


My father was a really good example of someone who rubbed shoulders with people from all walks of life, but held steadfast to his own core beliefs and values. To paraphrase the words of Rudyard Kipling he was able to “talk with crowds and keep (his) virtue,  (and) walk with Kings but still not lose the common touch”. My father was born into rural poverty in South Trinidad, and through sheer persistence and bloody-mindedness, lifted himself to the rank of Professor of Food Technology at the University of the West Indies. His public service included sitting on the board of several national enterprises and at one time he was a Senator in the Houses of Parliament of our republic. Throughout his extraordinary life, he never lost contact with his own roots, keeping in touch with family and friends from his village, and always championing the cause of the common man and woman. He was heavily involved in workers’ rights movements and especially the rights of agricultural workers in Trinidad and Tobago. During his stint in the Senate, he used his influence to do what he could for the people he served, yet was able to learn from his political allies and adversaries alike. 


With all these competing interests and influences around him, he was able to maintain his own sense of identity and morality. I always remember him saying to us as children “right is right and wrong is wrong and what is wrong can never be right”. On the other hand, he was always willing to listen to others and learn from them. He listened attentively to colleagues, friends and subordinates and used this as the basis for ‘lifelong learning’. 


He touched the lives of so many people, and in turn his own life was moulded by them. His words and deeds touched those around him and stretched far beyond his own small sphere of direct influence. At his funeral the church could not hold the congregation, which spilled out into the surrounding streets. Leaders of academia, politics and government rubbed shoulders with farmers, cane workers and trades unionists, all of whom came to pay their respects to him. He truly walked with kings, without losing the common touch.


What can we learn from this life? Firstly, it allows us to examine our own lives and our relationship with friends, colleagues and the people around us. Can we be open to a myriad different life views, but still keep true to ourselves? Can we maintain our core beliefs without isolating ourselves from the world?


As with so many aspects of life, this journey starts with self-reflection. We need to look into ourselves and critically evaluate our core values and morals. This is particularly important as we get older. The values of society are constantly changing and it is worth remembering that some of our long held beliefs may no longer be seen as mainstream or even acceptable in today’s world. While we should be willing to reexamine our moral compass, it is also important to have a firm grip on what, in our opinion, is not negotiable. We do not want to end up being blown to and fro with every passing fad!


Once we are sure about our own core values, it is much easier to engage with wider society without feeling threatened. It is useful to approach this with a degree of tolerance. While we may hold fast to our personal beliefs and may feel that these are certain ‘red lines’ not to be crossed, it is important to understand that these apply to our own behaviour and conduct, and it is often not appropriate to impose them on others. Can we really apply our own belief system strictly to ourselves, but still allow others to live their own lives? For many of us, the honest answer to this question is ‘yes, but with difficulty’. However, in today’s world this is an important skill to master.


Finally, lifelong learning is a philosophy worth embracing in all aspects of our existence. As such, we need to have an open mind to the changing beliefs and values of society and actively challenge our own fixed ideas when faced with a new way of approaching life’s challenges. In this way we protect ourselves from becoming outdated and irrelevant.


So, as older and more experienced members of society, let’s embrace the influences around us, while maintaining our core beliefs. Let us show that we can remain relevant to a changing society, while staying true to ourselves.



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