Often the people who shape us are a surprise. The freshman year roommate from the other coast that turns our expectations upside down. The weird studious kid in our college circle with whom we share a variety of countries with, and a trail of physical correspondence that spans twenty years. Even these examples are somewhat predictable, people in our near orbits, people at the same schools. Sometimes the shaping folk come from stranger orbits than these. They come from small towns outside of Tokyo, or outside of Shanghai. They are colleagues who grew up in clothing factories, whose voices and smiles we can still see, fifteen years on. They are colleagues in San Francisco, who sat with us on a median in Dongguan and gave us life advice, often recalled on this site, to “always do whatever’s next”.
Often the people who shape us are entirely predictable. They are our family, they are those in all the globe most similar. They are those whose eyebrows we share, those our facial expressions have called to mind since we were young. They are those who shaped us, our young intellects, with book recommendations, with conversations, with visits to Fallingwater and art museums. They are those who shaped us with their joy in rivers, their love of fields, and their curiosity about the world. We are lucky, to be shaped by those with curiosity. We are lucky to be shaped by people now gone.
Not all endings are the ones we chose. If life provides any lesson repeatedly it is that people are rarely ready to be done. People are rarely ready to be finished with their studies, their career, their relationships, their lives. Sometimes they shape us with their lives, rather than with their actions. As I say often, we are creatures guided not by opportunity but by example, and there are few stronger than those we grow up around. If their kitchen tables are stacked with magazines, we will flip through them when bored. If their walls are covered with maps, we will become engrossed on the way to the bathroom in the afternoon and forget our purpose. If they like long walks through fields as the light changes in the early evenings, we will too, and these hours will become important without our really stopping to think why. Our examples shape us not through conscious imitation but through the pull of the familiar. When given choices we drift towards things we understand, towards things we have seen before and find familiar. We drift towards what we think we know.
It is on those teaching us then to be broadening the familiar, to be constantly increasing what will seem comfortable when encountered again. From architecture to art, from global history to local water politics, we are luckiest to learn from those interested in the world and engaged with their surroundings. These are the lessons we’ll need to learn, the kinds of traits we’ll seek so hard to pass on ourselves.
Sad, then, to have to do it without those that so shaped us.