What does it truly mean to be a success as a human being? What does it mean to live life successfully?
I have a hunch we might answer that question a little differently during the holidays. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson defined success as follows:
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children…to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a little 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 the meaning of success.”
Emerson is suggesting that we may need a different way to think about what it means to be a success:
We need a way to think about success that includes every day of our lives, even the ordinary days—especially the ordinary days—all the way to our last day.
We need a way to think about success that includes (and makes use of) failures, setbacks and tragedy, since these are an inevitable part of life.
We need a way think about success that deepens and enriches our humanity, that helps us grow as persons and fulfill our own uniqueness.
We need a way to think about success that makes us excited to get out of bed each morning and helps us pursue what matters each day.
We need a way to think about success that helps us laugh more and deeper–a way that enhances all our important relationships and helps us be fun to be with.
We need a way to think about success that helps us find something to live for that is larger than ourselves, larger than any circumstance, and even larger than death.
Or as Krakatoa the parrot said to Hodgepodge the hippo (in my children’s novel, The Tale of Hodgepodge):
“There are many who frantically chase success, but success is not a chase and it’s not frantic. Success is a spark in your eye, a spring in your step, and a song in your heart.”
One of the things I like about December is the uplifting music. For example, we’ve all heard Vince Gill’s familiar song:
“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”
A sentimental cliché? Perhaps. But sometimes clichés mask a deeper truth.
Suppose I actually wanted to let peace begin with me, how would that work?
In his poetic essay Desiderata, Max Ehrman begins with these words:
“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.”
I like this reminder to relax and go peacefully, go gently, go quietly, go kindly through my days and years—especially in the midst of all the noise and busyness. (And it’s a reminder I often need!)
But how do we cultivate that ability? Ernst suggests, two things:
First, be on good terms with silence. Not an empty silence, but a deep, quiet listening—a warm, friendly fireside chat with my life.
They say a good friend is one who knows the worst about you and still likes you. We need a silence where we become that good friend to ourselves.
The busier our days, the more we need to put down our phones and turn off the tube, turn off the noise in our brains and make a little time for real, enriching silence.
The second suggestion is to do everything I can to be on good terms with all kinds of people—but without surrendering my genuine self, without being false.
The more ornery the person, the more we can learn from learning how to be with him or her in a human way.
In fact, maybe peace is simply about the work of learning how to be with yourself and how to be with others.
And that’s good work. It’s no small thing to do the “inner gardening” that helps you become a person at ease in the world—especially in a time that has so much dis-ease.
I’ve shared quotations before about the love of life, but here’s another one I appreciate from Henry David Thoreau:
“However mean [humble, poor, ordinary] your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names…The fault-finder will find faults even in Paradise. Love your life.”
I think Thoreau is telling us:
It’s a good thing to love life. To accept it, appreciate it, embrace it, cherish it, enjoy it, and seek to do well by it.
But that’s not enough.
What’s required is to love your particular life, the life you have right now, as is—with all of its successes and failures, ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses, tears and laughter.
For this is the only life you have. And it’s worth more than you think it is. (And by the way, you’re worth more than you look like you are.)
Does loving your particular life seem like an unreachable goal?
Actually, I think that goal is closer to us than we think it is. It starts with loving the near. Loving the here and now. And it brings some real benefits.
For example: Loving your particular life makes you more fun to be around. And it frees up energy for facing the challenges you have to face.
As Samuel Johnson said:
“The love of life is essential for the prosecution of any serious endeavor.”
Duke Ellington spoke playfully about what helped him create his great works of music.
“I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.”
I love what this implies: that there is a way to take the things that are draining our energy—and find in them new sources of creative, joyful energy.
And I don’t think we have to be musical geniuses to do that. I think it’s a human thing.
In other words, there is a way to relax and accept and make use of EVERYTHING that happens in our lives—good and bad.
And, since, this is Thanksgiving week, let’s take this a step further.
Do I dare say that there is even a way to be thankful for everything that has happened in my life?
Obviously, we would never wish for bad things to happen. But we know that Trouble comes into every life without exception. It’s part of being human in this world.
And one thing is for sure: accepting and being grateful is more energizing than being resentful. Forgiving (ourselves and others) is more energizing than regretting.
So perhaps—if we quiet our hearts and minds—we can even be grateful for what we can learn from the Trouble…for the way it helps us grow stronger, wiser, more empathetic…for the way it helps us become a more whole person.
I think Trouble can help us relax and be more grateful for each ordinary moment—when there might not have been a moment.
We can be grateful for the opportunity to participate in this world, a participation which includes joy and trouble just as a great symphony includes dark, somber passages as well as light, joyful ones. As the poet Mary Oliver wrote,
“It’s a serious thing to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world.”
Today, the whole world is very interested in finding alternative, natural sources of energy such as wind and solar.
If Ellington is right, we have an alternative source of natural personal energy right under our noses: the acceptance and playful use of even the things that get us down.
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