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In my mid-twenties, I lived with a PhD student from Romania. She lived with very little and chose it to be that way. From the stories of her childhood, what she had would have been considered living extravagantly. Still, she made her own yogurt, bath soap, toothpaste, and meals from the items she picked up from a local produce market. If she couldn’t strap it to her bike to transport, she didn’t buy it. She was active, healthy, and enjoyed life to the fullest. She valued her education and her relationships with people. She was an inspiration to me.

I remember my friend attempting to show me around my new neighborhood, directing me in my car to go the wrong way down the many one-way streets. I kept telling her that I can’t drive that way, but it never stopped her on her bike. Already, my life was more complicated.

I try to live my life simply, but it is a challenge. Our society is not set up for this. We are surrounded by the “have more,” “do more,” “be more,” messages at every turn. These are the things that are supposed to make life fulfilling, or at least lead you to success by most individual’s standards. Do these things really define success? They didn’t to my Romanian friend.

Merriam-Webster defines success as

suc·cess noun \sək-ˈses\

: the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that these measures of success lead to stress. Success is no longer about our own personal self actualization and growth, it is now in competition with the Jones’. The problem is, it doesn’t matter how hard one tries… there will always be someone who has more, does more, and is more than you. Doesn’t this set us up for failure? Are these the standards we want our children to define themselves by?

After thinking about what my definition for what success is (or should be) I’ve decided that my definition is the ability to recognize and use ones gifts to give back to the world. Meeting this goal has nothing to do with wealth, respect, or fame. It also doesn’t matter how much I have, or any title that I’ve achieved in my life. It doesn’t put me in competition with anyone but myself. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that only I work towards everyday. It’s a personal goal that is independent of anyone or anything else. What a pressure relief! Can you feel the stress start melting away?

I think it begins with a focus to live simply. It’s difficult to find your gifts and work on using them when you are surrounded by the “noises” of our world. It’s like trying to count when someone is throwing odd, random numbers at you constantly. It takes strength and focus to meet this goal, as I often feel as though I am swimming against the current of society. I’m sure my Romanian friend felt that way too, but her inspiration makes me stop and look at my life regularly, even now over 10 years later. She used her gifts to inspire me, and I hope to give the same back to the world.