jacobNEW“What’s your contribution to the world?”

My friend Jonathan is never one to ease his way into deep conversation. He prefers to dive in, no matter how jarring it can be at first. This instance came in the middle of a road trip, as we were pulling away from an Illinois gas station. I asked him to explain what he meant.

“You’ve been on Earth for over 20 years,” he said, “using its resources, taking up space. What have you done to give back to society?”

Despite it sounding accusatory, I knew Jonathan wasn’t questioning my worth. But it was a challenge. The film “Defending Your Life” came to mind – what have I done of real value with my life? After a few minutes of thinking, I gave Jonathan my answer: being an older brother.

I told him I haven’t yet had the opportunity to affect society in any kind of grand or expansive way, but as an older brother, I have the opportunity to play a large role in the formation and betterment of three other lives.

While I have not always been good at taking that job seriously, I do think I’ve overall been a positive presence and role model in their lives.

It sounds obvious, minor for a contribution to society, but it’s important. My biggest role models are the people who raised me — my parents, grandparents, and teachers. Even more than just teach me how to live, they showed me. I took pieces of each of their personalities and ways of life and created my own identity. I truly would not be who I am without these people.

Like any oldest sibling, I got the unique opportunity to have this role model position while I was still being formed myself. My brother and sisters followed me in so many of my decisions. Teenasia and Jamie wanted to sit next to me at special events. If I ordered a burger at a restaurant, Liam often got the same one.

My mom discovered the best way to stop me from arguing with her in high school was to tell me it would be a negative influence on my sisters. I grew up with a strong feeling that I needed to be a positive influence.

The formation period is almost over, though. Next year, Teenasia will be in high school, Liam will be in college, and my influence on them will be less direct. They will become more solidly individuals, discovering their own passions and making friends that will remain for life. They are breaking out of our family bubble and diving into the world.

Liam spent a few weeks in Germany with a program in which he was the only American. Teenasia plays basketball with a traveling club team and is ready to advance to the high school level. They have graduated from being my “little siblings” and are becoming my peers. I’m nervous, excited and proud.

As they enter into these new and exciting environments, it will soon be time to ask them the same question Jonathan asked me: “What’s your contribution?” I have done my job as big brother, guiding them whenever possible, but now they have to start forging their own trail, making their mark on the world that formed them.

I look forward to searching for the answer alongside them, finding ways to lead, influence and impact however possible. I have no doubt they will be role models for me just as much, if not more, than I was for them.

(Jacob, a junior at the University of Notre Dame, is the eldest of the four Scobey-Polacheck children.)