Who is on your porch? Ancient Romans named a school after a porch, The Stoa Poikile. It’s where men gathered to discuss and refine their ideas about what it meant to live honorably. Years leading to U.S. independence, men assembled in Boston tea houses to work through how best to gain independence from England.
I want to think others do not influence me, but I know better. Jesus may have resisted the influence of others, but most mortals kowtow to the will of the masses. Jim Rohn, the author of The Art of Exceptional Living, declared that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. This idea, referred to as the “proximity effect,” deserves our attention. After all, we want to be with people who uplift and inspire us. In addition to the influence of the five people, books, the media, work colleagues, social groups, and religion affect how we interpret the world.
If you’ve been married or spend a lot of time with the same few people, you may have noticed that you’ve adopted some of their views, phrases, or even quirks. Some are good. Some are bad. For example, I’ve benefitted from my husband’s self-discipline in exercising every day. What we watch is also a powerful influence. Binge-watching The Sopranos changed my brain’s algorithms. Driving to work, my thoughts, that F*ing driver and F*ing this and that, had pushed aside my usually calm demeanor.
Some time ago, Sabrina (not her real name) would fret about her husband watching Fox News and only Fox News. “Listening to Russ Limbaugh on the radio day after day was like Chinese torture,” she said. Eventually, she stopped complaining. My assumption was she’d learned to ignore Limbaugh’s tirades and hate. I was wrong. Discussing politics, she expressed views that lacked compassion; my rights and needs supersede concern for the greater good. Without going through the last four years of extreme right-wing views soaked in self-righteousness, I wonder if I’d ever have become aware of this change in her.
Sabrina today has bought into Fox News mentality, outrage and disdain for experts, medical or scientific. Yesterday’s Sabrina, the one I laughed with throughout the years, has been indoctrinated by what’s worst in us, self-interest. She prefers listening to soundbites and opinions of others above doing her own work, reading and listening for understanding.
Sometimes what comes out of my mouth is verbatim of how Tim would phrase something, such as, “Do you agree with that?” That sounds innocent enough, but after 40 years, if he said it once a day, it’s 14,600 times. Aside from sleeping and eating Fig Newtons, nothing is worth repeating this many times. My mother was not a talker, but I certainly picked up many of her values. Nonverbal cues are powerful. Rachel Maddox’s mantra is, “watch what they do; not what they say.” Apropos. I’ve heard my daughters lament, I’m becoming my mother. Lucky girls.
Cult mentality feeds on the sway and biases of others. Trump followers wear MAGA gear, hats and t-shirts, with his name blazoned across their chest. White men in my retirement community drive around with flags the size of their golf carts. In this context, the flag is not symbolic of freedom and justice for all. From these flag flyers, it’s a secret handshake, white people unite. Reading history would shrink their flags. Our greatness is not our past but in our willingness and desire to acknowledge our mistakes and not repeat them. People who want to think for themselves read books; others have large television screens.
President Biden’s followers criticize him when they feel the need, but don’t wear his face on their t-shirts or caps that read build back better. Most of us are influenced unknowingly, but those with unchallenged loyalty are least able to recognize how deep they’re down the rabbit’s hole. Much like North Koreans undisputed devotion to their “dear” leader.
Spending time around negativity and hostility is a bit like overeating or drinking too much, you know it’s not good for you, but it can’t be that bad you tell yourself. But your body’s unease simmers until it comes to a boil. Like the frog in the pot, you ignore the rising temperature, and finally, your right brain hemisphere that controls reasoning boils to a pulp.
Mob mentality describes how we are influenced and adopt behaviors based on emotions instead of rational thoughts. Out-of-control emotions are hard to reign in. When our flock makes a decision, we are far more likely to go along than we are to make our own decisions based on facts and sensibility. Brain scans on group subjects during a game, when the group’s answer was chosen over individual responses, showed activity in the logical thinking region decreased. It’s the story of a sheep blindly following the flock. It’s the mother’s mantra, “If your friend jumps off the roof, are you going to do the same?” When we stop questioning and thinking for ourselves we forfeit our independence to others.
Agrippinus, a Roman philosopher, was known for his steadfastness, doing what was right even when it meant going against the prevailing winds. He said that people see themselves as threads of brown and gray in a garment and that their job was to match the color and style of others. He chose to be red, even if it meant exile or being beheaded.
Who are the people on your porch, those who influence you the most? Terry McMillan’s book, It’s Not All Downhill From Here, tells of a group of women’s friendships. Humorous and serious. Friends for fifty years, they made different choices, the constant was their deep understanding of one another. Closing in on 70 years of age, they continued to influence one another, mainly for the better.
We want to think others do not influence us. In actuality, we are shaped by the people we spend time with and the examples we observe. It takes great moral strength to remain authentic to yourself, resisting the influence of your surroundings. Associate with those who help you become a better person. Who you spend time with matters.