Editor's note: This column was originally published in The Times and Democrat on Sept. 14, 2003.
You may not know who Norman MacEwan is, but chances are you’ve heard one of his quotes: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” I don’t know who Norman MacEwan is, and several attempts to research him on the Internet provided no information. Whoever Norman MacEwan is, however, he speaks wisely.
As I am prone to do from time to time, I’d like to modify his quotation for my own purposes. Forgive me, Norman, but I’d like to change part of your quote by adding just one little word: we make a life by what we give up.
We live in a society that emphasizes getting. Look around you and you’ll see people everywhere striving to get rich, to get noticed, to get popular, to get control, or to get more and more, bigger and bigger and better and better stuff. They pour tremendous energy into getting what they want. Look around you and you’ll see people who have become quite good at getting.
Then take a look around you and see how many people you know who have become proficient at giving up. Chances are they will be smaller in number and you’ll have to look very closely to recognize that giving up is a life choice that governs their every decision, philosophy and action. Then, if you look even more closely, you’ll notice that there is a definitive distinction in the way they live their lives, a distinction that gives their lives a deeper purpose, a deeper meaning and a deeper motivation.
You’ll see people who have given up the urge to get rich because they’ve learned it takes too much energy, too much time and too much second, third and fourth-guessing about financial choices. You’ll see people who have decided instead to work hard, to live within or even below their means and to save wisely. They’ve also learned the value of enjoying their blessings rather than continuing to focus on what they don’t have.
You’ll see people who have given up the need to get noticed because they’ve learned it’s far more important to notice other people – to recognize the achievements of others, to encourage and to sympathize with others, to share a kind word or lend a helping hand.
You’ll see people who have given up the need to get popular because they’ve realized that popularity as a goal in and of itself is empty. They’ve learned that true popularity comes from being genuine with people as you meet them, not from some phony sense of self-importance because everybody knows who they are.
You’ll see people who’ve given up the need to get control – control of people and control of situations. You’ll see people who’ve learned the value of being flexible, taking a sharp u-turn away from unbending attitudes that clearly demonstrate an inability to function unless things go their way.
You’ll see people who have left behind the drive to “keep up with the Joneses.” Instead of spending their time getting more and more, bigger and bigger, better and better stuff, they focus instead on spending their time laughing with friends, sharing with neighbors and making memories with family.
Remember, though, that these people aren’t the dominant force in our society. Sadly, the distinctions in their lives are not the ones that our society generally values. The distinctions reflect, however, the value of learning to give up the things in this life that simply do not matter. Look for these people. And when you find them, use them as role models.
But be warned. Change for the “getters” in life is not easy. Giving up is hard.