A radio remembrance of R. Sargent Shriver, who passed away at the venerable age of 95, recently caught my attention. Shriver was the brother-in-law of President Kennedy, having married JFK’s sister Eunice. Personifying the “Ask not what your country can do for you” idealism of the 1960s, Shriver was the founder and first director of the Peace Corps, which remains an avenue for educated, committed young Americans to heed a persistent call to serve others. He was also the heart and brains behind innovative social programs like Head Start and VISTA. But the part of the tribute that stayed with me was a quote from the Shriver family’s official statement: “. . . in the end, he will best be known for his love of others. No one ever came into his presence without feeling his passion and enthusiasm for them.” And I realized that I had grown up with someone exactly like that: my dad.
After my dad died, many people told my siblings and me about things my dad had done for them – loans, moral support, jobs, gifts, advice – that we had not known about, especially from back when we were kids. But even more than the quiet good deeds he had done, I was impressed by the way that each person felt that my dad had believed in and genuinely liked him or her; that even though he was notorious for getting names wrong, my dad gave of his affection as freely as he did of his material assets.
And he did the same with his children.
My older brother recently mentioned that he still missed running things by our dad, more than a year after his death. He had done this regularly by phone during halftime of Monday Night Football. I never knew about this tradition. My younger sister said that she missed our dad’s calls that always came just after L.A. Laker victories, which was a devotion they shared. I feel sad every time my dad and I don’t swap current issues of The New Yorker (mine) and The Atlantic Monthly (his), and I miss comparing notes on the articles we’d both read. My other three siblings point to special connections they each had to our dad – favorite meals at restaurants, shared books, dance moves, career partnerships, holiday customs, impromptu dates, inside jokes – and it is obvious that the feeling we all share is that our dad had that special place, that “passion and enthusiasm”, just for us. I don’t mean this in a competitive way, but we each think we had a unique relationship with our dad. And we did.
Certain people in this world have an innate gift for making others feel special, people like my dad and, judging from the public tributes, the recently deceased Mr. Shriver. By showering us with love, they make us believe that we are both loved and lovable. By cultivating closeness, they are quiet cheerleaders for us. When we are fortunate enough to have such a person in our lives, we not only bloom in the light of that positive presence, we can learn a lot about how to treat others.
One of the qualities of the people who uplift us and make us feel special is an insatiable curiosity about the lives of others. My dad was like that. I have known other people who exhibit such a genuine interest in whatever I am involved in that our conversation mostly consists of my answering their questions, and their knowing far more about me than I do about them. They, in turn, have taught me how to talk and listen so that others open up and share themselves with me. Most people warm up to someone who actively cares about what they have to say.
Successful managers – in businesses or government entities, in classrooms or nonprofit organizations – understand that the most effective way to elicit the best work from the people they manage is to support them and believe in them, and to make them feel they are valued and necessary. Encouragement and appreciation go farther in motivating people than fear and intimidation. In various jobs over the years, I’ve worked hardest for a boss who gets that a boss’s job is not to lord it over underlings, but to serve those under his or her supervision, and to enable others to do their best possible work. This quality of service from the top is also seen in good teachers, pastors, coaches, and other mentors. Conversely, I’ve been disheartened by bosses with superiority complexes, or who use degradation, humiliation, or other forms of manipulation to demand respect they have not earned. These are usually the managers with the highest employee turnover rates.
We all know people who try to fake “passion and enthusiasm” for us, but the act usually fails over time. That is why we cherish the people in our lives who truly have the grace to put others first, who truly love their neighbor. They are probably what God had in mind when first inventing humans: as the clearer image of God, they shine more brightly than the rest of us. They are rare gifts.