When I first began my career as a SuccessDiva, it didn’t occur to me that people would subscribe to the mistaken idea that I was promoting the idea of securing happiness through material possessions. However, there is oftentimes the assumption that success equals wealth or fame or an elevated social status. Although I have made it clear, both at this blog and elsewhere, that I am not encouraging you to seek this type of “success”, I am impassioned anew to point out not only the fact I am not promoting these ideas but also my reasons for not doing so.
The Russian author Leo Tolstoy believed that wealth actually came from “the number of things one can do without.” And since many of my principles in regard to life are very closely attuned with those of the Greek philosophers such as Epictetus, whom I mentioned in my last blog post, “The Authentic You”, I wholeheartedly agree with Tolstoy’s sentiments.
In many ways, abundance is the opposite of accumulation. When we accumulate, we are adding things to our lives, many of which we don’t really need. Yet, in achieving a state of abundance, we learn to appreciate that which we already have. I was reading a book written by a well-known psychologist and anthropologist in which she gave a beautiful illustration of how her perspective towards life changed by sharing an encounter she had with her grandmother, when the latter was dying of cancer. “Grandmother, have you had a happy life?” she asked her. The grandmother’s reply is profound in its inherent wisdom. “Mary,” she answered, “I don’t think of my life that way. I ask, ‘Have I made good use of my time and my talent? Is the world a better place because I have been here?'”
In a world where people cannot wait for the weekend to come so that they can relax and watch a lot of television or spend time hanging out with their buddies and friends, I think too many of us have lost sight of the fact that we were put on this earth for a reason. Skeptics and cynics scoff at the idea of our having a purpose. But which is better—a life lived by default or a live lived on purpose? Would you like to come to the end of your life without being able to name one fellow human being whose life you had touched?
If you have children, how you rear them is what will be the determining factor in whether or not you make a lasting difference in their lives. Unless you teach your children that who they are as people is infinitely more important than what they do, how much money they make, what they own, or even what relationships they have, you will be setting the stage for them to experience a lifetime of inner emptiness and disappointment.
Unfortunately, even living a life in which we devote ourselves to helping others can be evoked by a desire for self-gratification. The only way to ensure that our efforts towards making a difference in the world are sincere and done for the benefit of others is to ask ourselves how much further we would go in our pursuits if we knew that we would gain very little or nothing through our efforts. A female acquaintance of mine who is a “self-styled psychologist” recently complained that she felt she was “putting herself out” in her endeavors to help other people without getting the proper level of appreciation in return. Now, what’s wrong with this picture? Well, when we begin to expect rewards for actions that we say are solely to benefit other people, we are sending the clear message that, no matter how compassionate our behavior seems to those around us, the motive behind our actions has been self-serving.
The demonstration of gratitude is becoming more and more rare in the culture we now live in. Those who have little want everything, and those who have much want still more. We are inclined to value quantity over quality, both in our material possessions and in our relationships. Oftentimes, sex, rather than being something meaningful and significant, has become yet another outlet to distract us from lives that are unfulfilled and devoid of any real importance. Children are conceived without consideration and then resented for all of the extra time and effort they require. Not only have we not learned that less is often more—we seem to be embracing the concept that more is essential.
So, why do so much misery, hopelessness, and despair exist? Why is there such a high suicide rate, and why are so many seemingly stable marriages ending in divorce? What has happened to our society? Can the world be fixed? These are all questions that cannot be answered easily, and there is no “right” answer to any of them. Like most things in life, these questions are relative to the respective situations. Many variables are always involved.
Whereas one couple may divorce because of infidelity on the part of one or more partners, another couple may split up simply because they disagree over who should pick out the DVDs they rent from the nearest Blockbuster Video store. But there is one common denominator that is usually present in a set of circumstances that seems tragic or unnecessary. That denominator is a lack of clarity about that which matters most. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, once expressed a profound statement about that which matters most never being at the mercy of that which matters least. The question is, what does matter most?
I believe that at a certain point in his or her life, any critical thinker becomes cognizant of the fact that peace of mind and inner contentment are to be prized far more highly than either the esteem of others or the extent of one’s personal achievements. We are all connected to each other in this world, and, perhaps, at the root of the general hopelessness that is pervading our society is the idea that we have lost touch with one another. We are so occupied trying to persuade others to think the way we think and to see life the way we see it that the spirit of love and harmony has gotten cast aside in favor of being “right” and making our points about politics, religion, sex, or whatever the subject du jour may be.
As we toss out labels like “animal rights extremists”, “radical feminists”, “pro-abortion fanatics”, or, on the flip side of the coin, “fundamentalists”, “rednecks”, and “right-wing conservatives”, we don’t stop to think of the long-term consequences this name-calling will bring about. We have abandoned empathy for dehumanization and instead of discussing important issues we jump right in and start virulent debates. What would happen if we stood back and tried to put aside our differences long enough to form a connection with our fellow individuals, however tenuous that connection might be?
You may well have heard Gandhi’s frequently repeated quotation, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Yet, have you ever applied that particular quotation to yourself? Do you see yourself as merely one grain of sand on an overly populated seashore. Or do you understand that, even though you are only one person, you can still make an impact on the lives of those around you?
Forget everything you’ve heard about so-called positive thinking. Open your mind up and listen to my words for, though I speak with my own voice, my philosophy is summed up in the texts of many sages, philosophers, and poets who came into this world centuries before you or I were born. If we do not find some way to make our lives mean something, then many of us will come to the end of our lives fully comprehending why Arthur Schopenhauer wrote an essay entitled, “On Vanity of Existence”. According to Schopenhauer, man is a “compound of needs which are hard to satisfy . . . [and] their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which [man] is only given to boredom . . . [and] boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence.”
When was the last time you said you were feeling bored? Did you ever stop to consider it was because you were not engaging in any activities that were of any lasting value? I cannot help but think, when I read these words of Schopenhauer, that the only solution to the “vanity” of existence is in focusing our attention on something besides our own personal needs. If indeed the fulfillment of these needs does not bring lasting satisfaction to begin with, would we not be better off looking outside ourselves and our own wants and desires and focusing instead on the needs and desires of others?
I’m not encouraging you to live a life of unmitigated self-sacrifice. But I do feel that until we get to the end of ourselves, we will not be able to fill the void within our souls. We must let go of our preoccupation with ourselves and our own needs in order to leave a lasting imprint on the lives of those whom we leave behind. Whether we have children or not, there will be those who come after us whose lives will be affected in some way, however minimal, by the choices and decisions we have made.
It’s easy to regard yourself as insignificant, but in a way, by doing this, you are avoiding responsibility for your life. In demeaning your own importance, you are removing any sort of obligation you might have to accomplish something worthwhile, whether it be raising your children with values and principles or using your gifts and capabilities to their full potential. Sometimes, we use fear as an escape mechanism. After all, if we’re too afraid to take charge of our lives, no one will blame us if we don’t do all we could or should. And, if we add the habit of blaming others to our own feelings of fear and anxiety, we’ll end up having plenty of reasons to justify our indolence, apathy, self-pity, and sloth.
It’s also tempting to attribute our lack of initiative to depression or discouragement. But when we hear about those who have overcome insurmountable odds to accomplish remarkable things, we’re left with the inner knowledge that our excuses don’t hold up so well under scrutiny. Although you may not realize this, if you are living a life in which you’re letting fear control you or using blame to validate your own mistakes, you are actually living in a state of bondage. You have managed to victimize yourself—you have become a martyr of your own feeble attempts to excuse yourself from living a life of purpose and significance.
In a way, we are not entirely to blame for this tendency many of us have to avoid responsibility for our lives. Our society and culture encourage us to feel like our lives and the world at large are spiraling out of control. Messages of fear about global warning, political upheavals, and nuclear disaster are hurled at us like missiles. Almost every time we turn on the news or pick up a newspaper we hear about yet another case of injustice or brutality. How is it possible to have peace of mind in such a chaotic universe?
One of the most fundamental ways to achieve a state of inner calm is to separate that which we can control from that which is out of our control. Although we can make an impact on the world, we cannot change the world, no matter how strong our desire might be to do so. It is not uncommon to embrace the concept of being a superhero who manages to bring about transformation on a monumental scale. But each of us is just one person with one life to make into either a story that nobody will remember or a masterpiece that others can reflect upon with admiration and respect.
Anne Frank, the young Jewish girl who died of typhus in a concentration camp at the age of sixteen, summed it up with exquisite eloquence when she said, “Give whatever you have to give, you can always give something, even if it’s a simple act of kindness.” What we must let go of, when we decide to give to those around us, is the expectation that we must get something back. In order to live authentically, to truly break free from self-limiting beliefs and live a life without limits, we must be willing to stop asking ourselves that age-old question, “What’s in it for me?”
To stop clinging to the habit of expecting to be repaid for our good deeds and kind gestures takes courage. But until we learn to be masters of the art of self-sufficiency, we will always be looking for fulfillment in things, people, and achievements. We will never get to the place where we can look in the mirror and feel a surge of self-respect and acceptance for the face looking back at us. The choice is up to you. Do you want to continue living a life by default or would you like to start living on purpose?
This page and all written material at the SuccessDiva pages is written by Alexis Wingate. All rights are reserved. (C) Copyright by Alexis Wingate, the SuccessDiva