Some lessons are learned early in life, the hard way, never to be forgotten.
As I was coming out of childhood there was a major upheaval in my life. I saw my family lose almost everything: our properties, our money, and our way of living but most of all our beloved homeland Mozambique. My grandfather, who was a self-made man, lost everything he had worked so hard for during his whole life, and he was devastated as were so many Portuguese citizens born and bred in Mozambique – a Portuguese colony then – who saw themselves as belonging there, only to be told by the new rulers that they were undesirable.
I always knew Granddad as the family patriarch, a successful businessman and a prominent citizen; in the sixties he served for a few years as an independent member of the Portuguese Parliament representing Mozambique.
During his mandate he did his duty by his homeland – he travelled across the country to get to know its issues and bravely denounced them during Parliament sessions, sometimes fearing some retribution from the political police for his daring. Fortunately – and somewhat surprisingly – he never got into trouble.
As I was growing up I saw him as a hard working, serious, kind man who always tried to help others and who addressed both his peers and his employees the same way. To him, all persons deserved the same respect, no matter their status; and this philosophy he applied to himself. Unlike many people who have difficult beginnings and later rise in status only to become insufferably arrogant (not to mention nouveau riche) he never saw himself as better than any others. He might be chairman and CEO of his company, a politician and a highly respected citizen, but he was never conceited, nor for one moment did he believe himself superior in any way. No matter how much people flattered him, no matter the fact that he was always surrounded by a small “court” who tried to be part of his closest circle, he never, ever lost that modesty that was such an important part of him. Yes he was rich and powerful, but he used much of both to help others and he always saw himself for what he really was, a simple man who was passionate about his work and loved his family above all.
This man lost his land, his home, his company, his cars, his money, his beautiful house surrounded by a luscious garden with two tall trees on each side and the beds of roses his wife had so lovingly planted. He found himself in a four roomed apartment in Lisbon, a city he knew well but was still fairly alien to him, with grey unending winters and no business to dedicate himself to. Most of all, he lost many of those who had protested to be his friends when he was at the top; as his power and influence faded, so did those “court dwellers” who were nothing but false friends trying to get some advantage by associating themselves with him in some way.
Young as I was, I saw all this and understood the lesson. In life, it really doesn’t matter what positions you hold or titles you have; all of them are ephemeral and what really matters is your essence, the person you really are. It is an error to judge yourself by your professional status as so many people tend to do, because when that unfailingly comes to an end – and it does, sooner or later – you are left bewildered and with absolutely nothing, for all you had has been lost.
Fortunately this was not Granddad’s case. He was so much more than the influential businessman. He was a loving husband, father and grandfather, a loyal friend and a great professional who had relevant achievements behind him. He never stopped grieving for his losses but slowly he came to terms with them and he still lived for many years with his beloved family. He lived to see us pursue our careers – and how proud he was – and to meet his great grandchildren who were his delight. He raised us with a firm guiding hand and I have no doubt that had it not been for his sound advice my life would have been much different – for worse.
So when it comes to lessons in life I have no doubt learned from Granddad’s example. He may have lost his status and properties but he never lost his spirit, his dignity. He never changed, nor did he have to – he continued to be demanding but kind, rigorous but affable, serious but warm. Simple, never arrogant, sympathetic and striving to help those unfavoured. From his life’s example I soon learned we are not worth by our jobs or positions in whatever companies or institutions we work for. If we are CEOs or Executive Directors that’s part of our work and even then we should be humble and know for certain nothing lasts forever, let alone job titles. I never chose my friends for what they did but rather for who they were as persons; they don’t give a damn about my job title and I feel the same towards them. I find it truly tragic when someone is so deeply engrossed in their careers that they think their colleagues are their friends. They are not, and one day when that position is no longer theirs neither will those “friends” – they will simply vanish and move on to gravitate around the next shining sun.
At a time of change in my life, when glamorous titles and positions are going to be left behind – and I confess to some relief about it – I am so thankful for that lesson, one that has been with me during my whole life. Like my dear Grandfather – who proudly declared of all his descendants I was the one most like him and how proud I have always been of that heritage – I was never dazzled by power or titles or positions. I am friends with Gaby, Beli, Luisa or Rosario because we have things in common and I know they will be there when I need them, nor because they are famous lawyers or professors or powerful CEOs. As Granddad taught me, what matters is our worth as human beings; all the rest is accessory and temporary. What we truly are, our essence remains. When he lost so much he was still a unique human being whose worthy lessons will be with us until the end of our days.
In the end, that’s what really matters. The people who are our references and the lessons we have learned. Isn’t learning what life is about anyway?