A good life lived

I have thought much recently about death, my own death. I’ll stop here for just one second and say “I am not suicidal and I have not been diagnosed with a serious illness and given a predetermined amount of time to live.” That said, let’s move along.

The ying and yang of this discussion is an easy to understand. In Chinese philosophy, ying/yang means “co-arising” and “interdependent.” You cannot not know one without the other. Darkness would be impossible to know without light. Pain would be impossible to know without joy. It is difficult, impossible even to think about life without also thinking about death.

As a social worker/mental health therapist I see people everyday who struggle with anxiety, depression and panic attacks. We con ourselves into believing we are actually living our lives when in reality we are living the lives dictated to us by others. We have all been handed a script by our parents which contains the words “should, would and could.” Another fantastic word to add to this list is “can’t.” We embrace these words, develop an unhealthy relationship with them, make love to them and allow them to dictate every action, every attitude. We are afraid not to. We use the safety net they provide for us and go on living a life that is safe but often unfulfilled. A heard a story not long ago about the actor/comedian Damon Wayans. In that interview he told his father he did not wish to attend college, he wanted to become and actor. His father urged him to “get a degree so you have something to fall back on.” Damon responded, “I don’t want anything to fall back on. If I am aware of the safety net I won’t be successful because I won’t take the chances I will need to take to challenge myself and succeed.” 

We are drawn to a big paycheck or a fancy title. We sit in an office enveloped in fear; fear that I might lose my position. If I lose my position I lose my salary. If I lose my salary, I lose all of the material possessions I have accumulated over the years to let others know and to remind myself of my superficial success. Is this success? Have we achieved success? If this is the manner in which we define success, then the answer is a resounding “yes.”

But is this empire we have built, this castle in which we live…do these things bring true happiness? I saw a patient recently who has these things, these possessions. He sat in my office, both legs vibrating violently, head buried in his hands and tears streaming down his face. He cried. Through the tears told me how unhappy he was. He told me the one thing he “loved” about his job was his ability to “help others.” He hated, even despised his job. He found it an energy drain. We discussed options and he looked at me and through his tears and said, “You don’t understand. If I quit my job, my wife won’t love me and my kids won’t like me because I won’t be able to afford the things I can now afford.” He claimed he wanted to be less depressed and less anxious but was not willing to face those things which were causing the depression and anxiety.

Is this the life you want? A life filled with grief and sadness; of energy robbing people, things and activities. Do you want to live into your eighties or nineties, look back at your life with regret and count the truly happy moments on one hand? This is surely one way to meander through this great puzzle we call life. It is not the way I choose to navigate through my life.

I have achieved a great deal of success in my life. If we define success by the traditional means, then I have not achieved success, then I am among the poorest of individuals. For many years, I have used Emerson’s quote of success as my barometer: 

To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

Get up, go outside. Put one foot in front of the other and live, truly live your life. 



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