To most people, the saying “to use someone,” carries a negative connotation. But, I don’t see it that way. To ‘mis’, ‘over’ or ‘ab’ use someone is negative. To use is necessary. And if you can’t be used, then you’re useless.”
– Kanye West
In high school, my PE teacher relentlessly coached me on my running form. I moved more vertically than forwards, subconsciously wanting to exchange my feet for wings. I’d puncture the air with my balled fists, as if I were sticking it to the world with each stride. My peers used to joke that running is in an African’s DNA, but somehow it skipped mine. I felt that as Africans, we’re always running from something. We reframed a survival tactic as a skill. It was a metaphorical protest for me not fit this narrative, I was never meant to run – I was meant to fly.
I dreaded the fitness test days when it was time to run the mile. The PE teacher would call out to the stragglers on the track “Don’t get lapped!” I watched panic slap the faces of my classmates as they tried to get ahead to avoid being lapped. I never understood why it impacted them so much, why someone else’s gains made them feel so small. When my peers were approaching lapping me, I’d move to the outer lane of the track to reduce their mile time. I knew I couldn’t keep up, so it was important to me to not get in their way of achieving their personal best. As they passed me, we’d say to each other “keep it up” an affirmation of go harder and don’t quit. My peers would be well situated by the time I completed my mile and would throw me a water bottle. Such a simple gesture, yet it conveyed a power message. When people make it farther than you, they’re able to anticipate and fill your needs when you make it in the end.
Lately, I’ve been fascinated by the Western vs Eastern notions of success. The tug of war between the competing ideologies of “You can’t pour from an empty cup” and “Lift as you climb.” My Mamaiay instilled in me the value of service and building community. She used to preach, “If you got it, give it. If you don’t, share what you have.” I internalized that creed whilst I constructed my own definition of success. I’ve never harbored a fear of failure, I’ve always been optimistic that I could bank off my resilience in any situation. What I do fear, however, is one day “making it” and not seeing my loved ones beside me. I never wanted my success to be an exception, or an isolated experience. I felt that the way I could refute this from becoming a reality, is by disseminating information and sharing my learnings. I wanted to help others come up off my mistakes in half the time it took me.
I’ve gotten feedback from a few people that I should be more intentional with my time and exchange what I know for a fee. One person told me, “the game is to be sold, not told.” I rejected this mindset, because information that’s easily accessible amongst the privileged, is esoteric in underserved communities. Information is a necessary first step towards personal and societal advancement. I never understood why people were hesitant to put others on. Or even worse, why some people wanted notoriety when they did put someone on. I realized a lot of people do acts of service for clout, or a check which they’re hoping to cash out later. I don’t know when the shift occurred when service became transactional. I’ve been seeing tweets and conversations circulating about how people feel betrayed when people they’ve helped forget about them in their new-found success. The self-preservation aspects of the human mind hold on tightly to what we’ve done for others but loosely recall what others have done for us. Whenever I find myself sinking into this hole, it takes intentional self-correction to remind myself that the same grace my beneficiaries have given me, should be extended to others.
I’ve never understood the envy that plagues people’s hearts when others succeed and pass them up. When you teach someone to fish, it doesn’t come with the condition that the person should only catch as many fish as you. If they catch more fish, you’re not supposed to say, “why aren’t you feeding me?” You teach people to fish, so that they can catch as many fish as possible and so they can pass on that knowledge to the next person. That’s the beauty of the multiplier effect, that’s how you transform and start feeding communities. The best teachers aspire for their proteges to surpass them. As children, when we play leapfrog it’s routine that one uses your back as a launchpad to jump ahead. That’s how service and knowledge works, it’s meant to be to a catapult.
Ego slows down advancement. Sometimes I feel like we’ve lost touch that we are our most powerful when we properly leverage one another. We’ve become so obsessed with getting ahead individually that we’ve guilt tripped others into “giving back” when really, we’re holding them back. When my mind wanders, I’m usually daydreaming about different analogies. I feel like we’ve become so obsessed with moving in lockstep with each other we’re not getting anywhere. It’s like we’re fine looking at a brick wall so long as we all have the same vantage point, instead of stacking ourselves on each other’s shoulders so at least one of us can catch the view to tell the others. When people reach heights we haven’t, they’re trotting on and clearing an unpaved path. With each person that follows, the path becomes more defined and smoother.
I’ll never forget when the Nordstrom’s paid for my outstanding tuition balance and the dad said, “Rahwa you better do something amazing, like cure cancer.” Because, that’s how you pay back the investments of others, by realizing your full potential. For those that pass me up, I’ll rejoice as the distance between us grows. I’ll patiently wait for the time when you double back, just like my classmates on the track. I know you’ll be cheering me on, and God willing, you’ll be there to embrace me should I make it to the finish line.
Envy is deception, it’s a manifestation of self-doubt. It’s cancerous, and culminates in the ugliest of acts where individuals choose to blow out a candle rather than light one up, even though it takes the same amount of effort. It’s our responsibility to our loved ones to free them from the shackles of guilt of moving forward, even if it means leaving us behind. When others thrive, you show up, you show out, and you thank God that you were able to be a part of their journey.
It’s a blessing to be a resource, to be used. Because, let’s be real, if you’re not helping others build, you’re just bullshitting them.
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