I Am A Rock, I Am An Island: On Living Vicariously

Men's Issues


I remember a conversation I had with my father long, long ago. I had been talking to a coworker about marriage.  I was a single college student, I didn’t understand the first thing about being married. The man with whom I had worked the night before was probably 30, and had been married for several years.

“How long do you have to be married before you stop thinking of your wife like your friend, and she becomes more like a family member in your mind?” I had asked.

“When you’re married, your wife isn’t really like either of those,” the man said.

“She’s more like… An extension of yourself.”

“Sounds like a smart man,” said my dad.

I don’t know why I remember that random little conversation. Sometimes life doesn’t seem to adhere to any brand of reasoning whatsoever. But I find that I would agree with my coworker’s statement, one hundred percent. 

The Definition of Vicariousness 

I said in my last post that I live vicariously through my son. I wished I could have figured out another way to say what I meant then, because I could see later that it rubbed a few people the wrong way, and even though the words were technically correct, didn’t really communicate what I wanted to say. Making serious decisions because of some kind of vicarious desires sounds strange, and I recognize that. 

What I wanted to communicate was the idea that, in a very real way, my son’s experiences affect me, and my experiences affect him. Now, that’s the most obvious, shallow way to say it, but what I’m thinking actually  goes several steps deeper: my son’s experiences are my experiences, and mine are his. 

Now, this might sound weird, but you’ve got to hear me out. It is not true for one hundred percent of the things that happen in our lives, but, at six years of age, my son is still very, very closely tied to his parents. We have seen or heard about almost all of the things he has done, every day, for every year of his life. Every real decision about his life has been made by us — whether he can go for his first sleepover, where he’ll go to public school next year, what he’ll have for breakfast. As a child, he is unable get very far from us. 

Normally, when you make decisions, you bear the consequences. However, in parenting, you learn quickly that not you, but your child, is the primary bearer of the consequences for some of your decisions. Isn’t that strange? You still bear the consequences of your decisions, but indirectly through your child’s experience. 

Maybe you could call the consequences you experience the “secondary consequences” — I don’t know how psychologists think about these things. But one must admit, when you decide that your child can’t have any cake, you don’t have the experience of wanting cake and not getting any — but you experience that disappointment in a very, very real way through your child’s reaction. 

This is not just for parents 

Enough with the parenting examples. As I thought about this the other day, it occurred to me that most people end up living this way, if they have any sort of relationships with other people at all. Friends, the closer they become, go through experiences together. They make decisions about their lives, and those decisions influence others. The more serious the decision, the greater the influence. 

This is not in your imagination 

The dictionary defines vicarious as “experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person.” I would posit that anyone who genuinely cares about any other people that they are connected to, will experience the actions or feelings of others — not in the imagination, but in reality. 

Our actions and decisions have real consequences — for both us and for others to whom we are connected. You may think you can move to Germany, and do it for yourself and no one else. You may decide it doesn’t matter to you what others think of your decision. But that doesn’t mean you have not had some affect on the lives of others. Anyone close to you, anyone who cares about you will know — part of their world is going away, and they will no longer experience life in exactly the same way. Suddenly, without so much as walking a mile they are half a world away from a friend. 

Sometimes you can watch the dominoes fall after you make a decision. Whichever direction they take, you decision has spawned a series of other decisions by other people which are real. The experience that others have of your life is real — and while it should not handicap you, it should still be observed. We are not islands. We are connected to others. 

Now some may say that these friends of ours are not really experiencing our decisions — they are experiencing their own life as a result of our decisions. But even that seems like a concession for anyone of the more independent temperament. Our decisions then are not solely ours. If we can influence others by making seemingly independent decisions, then it must follow that our own decisions are the result of the decisions of others. Though we may claim independence, we are ourselves living out our lives in light of many experiences that were not our own. If we accept that we have the power to influence others, who can claim to be the originator of that influence? It is a chain of influence that goes back infinitely into the past, and continues on indefinitely. 

Maturity, then, seems to require that one come to terms with this stream of connection, while neither denying its existence nor drowning in its depth. As mature people, we have to learn to be proud of those connections that have made us stronger, and aware of those that have weakened us. We are not imprisoned by the debt we owe to others, but we are also not solely the result of our own decisions and experience. We are, in reality, living out the results of countless experiences of others, and at the same time influencing all the lives that we touch. This is not good or bad — it simply is. 

Obviously, some relationships are more influential than others: parents and siblings are perhaps our most foundational relationships, then many of us move to spouses, children, then best friends, acquaintances, godparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, coworkers, neighbors. But I cannot view this deep connection to others as a bad thing, something to be jettisoned for some mythical version of independence. 

I am not a rock. I am not an island. I never was, and never will be. And neither are you. 

One thought on “I Am A Rock, I Am An Island: On Living Vicariously

  1. Jonathan, I don’t remember that conversation but, nevertheless, it is true. The spouse is an extension and that’s the way it’s meant to be. And, the sons and daughters are also extensions of the parents. It’s not a conscious decision; we just recognize it sooner or later that we live our lives through our children. It kind of reminds me of what Christ did: he lived his life through his church.

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