Redefining “Success”

(This post is part one of a two part idea I have been meditating on this weekend. I’m hoping to have a few moments to write the second half this evening or tomorrow.)

If you would have told me when I was twenty that at age 32, I would have stayed married for nine years, had a beautiful son and a daughter on the way, was working at a church where I could preach whatever I want without controversy and that I would get to work at a college at the same time… all of this by age 32, I would have told you that 32 year old me must be the happiest person in the world.

Now, if you would tell that same 25 year old me that a year and half later I would have left that ideal life behind only because I moved back to Pittsburgh to become the executive director of The Pittsburgh Project, pretty much the most important organization in the world to me, and that I would be a new homeowner with my wife and beautiful children, I would have asked if I was just constantly smiling. 25 year old me would have assumed that we won some sort of Karmic jackpot and that there is no way that he was going to be discontent with his future life.

25 year old me would have been wrong.

At some point, about midway through my 32nd year of life something completely unforeseen happened: I had everything I wanted and I was miserable. I was left with these weird thoughts: “is this all there is?” “maybe I need more” “what’s wrong with me?”

I was probably a little young to be having a midlife crisis, but it felt like what I imagine those are like.

The dissatisfaction I was feeling was coming from what Eckhart Tolle calls the “egoic” self. All of these bolstered an “I”, a false self, an ego that I denied having because I was feeding if with good things. Family is good. Education is good. Church work is good. But when all of those things, having all of those things, being all of those things take over your being, then you’re left with a sense of worth that can only be maintained through achievement. And achievement is like Chinese food, good at first but it doesn’t take long before you’re hungry again. My sense of self had a hole in it and I had a plan to fill it. Successful family, successful work, more education. Then I would be happy. And happy me would make the world better… you know, once I was perfectly happy.

The last year and a half has seen the slow stripping away of all of things on which I have based my ego. I’m divorced. I see my kids not nearly as often as I would like. My ordination is suspended. I’ve had no place of my own to live. This week I laid down the last of my associations that brought me pride.

… and I’m happy. I’m at peace.

I’m not always happy, mind you. I’m still anxious about things (I’ll get to that in part two). Things upset me. My life is much, much messier now. But I feel lighter. My spirit feels lighter. It feels like I’ve lost the burden of expectations, those I put on myself and those I assumed others had for me. I’m finding a “self” where there once was ego. A true self.

My “self” loves to listen to people. My self forms intimacy quickly because of a deep desire to know people (pros and cons to that). My self loves to teach and therefore loves who love to learn. Those tend to be younger people. My self chooses depth of words over quantity of words. My self loves to laugh and can have a wicked sense of humor. My self loves complex systems, whether that be an organizational system, an ecosystem, the set of a film, how 11 guys work together in a 3-4 defense, or the production of a piece of music. My self loves to hear the ocean, touch the soil, and feel the sun.

My self is insecure. My self wants you to like him. My self is anxious. My self can get discouraged easily. My self has difficulty following through or “showing up” sometimes, but he’s good when he shows up! My self feels hopeless and small and overwhelmed at times. My self daily resists the urge to shut the world out.

My self is inspiring and infuriating, and complex, and ridiculously simple, and seeking authenticity while wildly secretive… My self is dark and light, broken and whole, perfect as I am and yet a work in progress.

And this is success, I think, to know ourselves. Not for the sake of narcissistic navel-gazing, but for the sake of knowing the impact that we can have on the world and the ways that the world impacts us. To know ourselves that we might bring our whole selves to any endeavor. To know ourselves that we might know what we share with the world, what we share with our intimate few, and what must be kept locked away for our own use.

All of this sounds pretty rosy and optimistic. There’s another side though. I valued the egoic self. I valued him dearly. I spent years nurturing him and now he’s gone or at the very least on life support. Though he may have outlived his usefulness, I still mourn his loss. And that is part two…

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