You Are What You Do When it Counts

Sunday, April 10, 2011
You are what you do when it counts. That's a quote from one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, Armor, by John Steakley.

I've always loved that quote, because it perfectly articulated something I thought was true: that you define yourself when the chips are down, when it matters most if you're courageous, or self-sacrificing, or bold. But like a lot of things, my opinion is changing as I get older, and now I want to add an addendum to this quote I like so much:

You are what you do when it counts. And it all counts.

I've come to realize that defining a life by the actions of a single moment disrespects the person. It is the acts committed over the whole of a life that defines someone. If I'm rude to someone because I'm having a bad day, my action has made the world a little more surly, and a less pleasant place to live. But if I perform an act of kindness, then the opposite is true.

I was reminded of this the other night when we had dinner with a dear friend and her family. As I was standing in line to pay the bill, the man in front of me was trying to get the cashier to add a dollar to his bill and give it to him in quarters. The reason for this request was apparent - his two kids, aged about 4 and 6, wanted a gumball from the machine at the front of the restaurant, and Dad obviously didn't have any cash. The kids weren't being whiny or rude about it - but you could tell they really wanted a gumball. The father was having trouble explaining what he wanted to the cashier, so I looked in my wallet and found two quarters, which I then gave to the man. He prompted both of his kids to thank me for my kindness, and thanked me himself.

It wasn't a big thing, in fact it was decidedly small. But instead of being impatient at the delay (as is my tendency), I performed the act of the mensch I aspire to be.

And it made me realize yet again that not everyone can be a Congressional Medal of Honor winner or save the life of children by researching cures for childhood leukemia. Some of us will be limited to these small acts of kindness, based on a larger desire to serve others. And that's okay. Because it all counts, and each action carries a negative or positive effect on the world. I need to do a better job of considering the effect of all my actions, and do my part to make my small corner of the world a better place.

7 comments:

David said...

You posted something like this about a month ago, and ever since then it has been sinking deeper into my mind how right on target it was. You are what you do, not what you intend.

I find that the things I beat myself up over are not the stupid things I've done - which, after all, often have some redeeming value to them, if only as a negative example.

The things I regret are the good deeds I have left undone.

Do or do not. There is no try. (Was that Yoda or Grover? I had my eyes closed and they sound exactly the same...)

Janiece said...

It was Yoda. And that's good advice, regardless of who said it.

Karl said...

I've had an Aristotle quote up on the office wall here (next to the fortune telling fish and a picture of a chicken) for a few years. It's the one that says that excellence is not an act but a habit. It's been a reminder for me to try to do this in all aspects of my life, as well. Thanks for the bump. :)

Another Batman quote that I've hung onto for years: "There's nothing wrong with you that I can't fix with my hands..."

Tom said...

It all counts, but who is doing the counting?

I think it's just you and me. However, I see the end result in you, without knowing all the pluses and minuses you've accumulated over the years. I'm not sure I know how I do, but I do. It shows.

Janiece said...

Only in the last 15 years, Tom. I still have some bad karma to work off...

happycrow said...

"You are what you do when it counts. And it all counts."

You get it. ::claps::

Have always loved this quote, and stumbled across your blog while googling it. Speaking it out loud, I've always followed up with "when does it count? It ALWAYS counts."

Janiece said...

Welcome, happycrow. It's a lesson have to keep in the top of my mind, each day, as the "small things" sometimes get overwhelmed by the vagaries of everyday life.