What makes a successful life? As we enter an era of decreasing expectations and lowered living standards, we can welcome the growing recognition that focus on material accumulation fails to deliver lasting contentment. The Protestant ethic of ambition and accomplishment likewise is proving unreliable, as it becomes harder and harder to achieve amidst intensifying competition.
Of course, by midlife most of us recognize that satisfaction more reliably derives from aligning life toward love. We appreciate the comfort gained from attending to our circle of friends and family.
So can life be considered successful if we develop deep and abundant relationships? Certainly these go a long way toward creating happiness, but an intractable problem remains. All our loved ones are mortal. Tragedy could strike and unexpectedly deprive us of those we hold most dear. And even if no unexpected calamity occurs, the relentless passage of time will eventually sever all our attachments.
Furthermore, there are those who simply lack personal connections. Many of the elderly end up isolated. Some people have suffered so much wounding that they feel uncomfortable in relationships. And all of us eventually must cross death’s threshold alone.
So although caring for others is uplifting, we should seek another measure of living well. Otherwise, those who suffer losses and traumas might believe that life has failed them, or they have failed life. This would be both tragic and unnecessary.
As a first step, we can expand our arena of concern to include people outside our immediate social circle. If we are fortunate enough to be able to help others who are struggling, much fulfillment will follow from doing so. But even those unable to assist can find comfort in a meditative awareness of their connection to all who dwell on this earth. When fully realized, such studied wisdom can fortify the heart against loneliness and despair.
For instance, one can vicariously enjoy the pleasures of strangers. No matter how painful our own situation, someone, somewhere, is falling in love, or getting to know a newborn child, or laughing and dancing with friends. If we recognize humanity to be of one body, and not seven billion, we can participate from afar in this ceaseless fountain of joy.
Of course, there is a wrinkle here. If we become viscerally aware of our interconnection, if we believe in unity at the level of soul, then we must also temper the joy we feel when fate treats us well. If we experience good fortune, we will appreciate it and yet remain distressed that suffering never ends. Someone, somewhere, has just lost the love of his or her life. Many beloved children die every day. Natural disasters destroy whole villages.
Developing appreciation for the interweave between ourselves and the entire collective of humanity, and indeed all biological forms, is a healthy goal. In our dismal moments it can uplift us, and in our most abundant epochs it can humble us. Either way, however, we do not find the lighthearted satisfaction we once valued. Instead, we plunge into the turbulence of organic nature with all its rejoicing, tragedy, death, and irrepressible fertility. This is not happiness of the usual sort, but a kind of endless heroic storm.
So if the most expansive embrace of others will awaken us to nearly infinite psychic turmoil, must we abandon universal love? Obviously, that is not the point. Instead, we need to ask if we hold correct assessments of grief, disappointment, loneliness, despair, and all the other seemingly negative feeling states.
Our culture remains immature. Advertising firms promote values of youth, wealth, material possessions, and pleasure. No products (except antidepressants) are marketed with models displaying frowns or tears, because unhappiness and grief are considered undesirable, if not moral failures. The unmistakable message is that if you aren’t affluent, beautiful, and bubbling with delight, you’re not successful.
This misplaced ethic used to upset me, but now I am able to smile at our society the way one indulges a child. The average person simply doesn’t understand that life never ceases displaying beauty. The most despairing moment is sometimes nearly radiant with a mysterious and sorrowful aesthetic. After all, it is the poignant loveliness of tragedy that motivates the most affecting and enduring literature and art.
Fortunately, there is a growing minority of folks who understand. In every city meditation teachers are slowly leading the population toward a more accepting and openhearted perspective on the ups and downs of life. Books roll off the presses with inspiring messages that help people see their hardships as manifestations of grace.
Of course, we are left with many problems no matter how much we surrender into the world’s vigor and tumult. In particular, we confront the exploitation, greed, and cruelty that so often damage lives. I suffered the effects of this selfish and sadistic aspect of human nature during my upbringing. And yet, despite some harrowing memories, I no longer feel that the abuses were unmitigated injuries. In many ways they became my most potent kernels for later blossoming. So although the vicious tyrants of the world are undeniably corrupting their own souls, in the end they may be providing a painful but crucial fire that tempers the core essence of those they harm. This doesn’t excuse evil or imply we shouldn’t resist it, but it does offer a more nuanced comprehension that might make us hesitate before we assume the universe has been badly made because it contains such darkness.
I realize that there are other popular modes of grappling with the human condition. I’ve worked my way through many of them in my search for peace. But so far every other approach has disappointed me. Material accumulation, professional achievement, and romantic attachments have all let me down; if they had not, I’d probably still be a surgeon dwelling in an oversized house. Living from a sense of personal importance while striving to satisfy desires has never worked for long; sooner or later I fail in my goals or tire of my conquests. Although religious belief provides solace for many, I’ve found faith in anything more particular than vague mystical currents difficult to maintain in the face of disappointment and loss. Only humble recognition of my small but engaged role in this kaleidoscopic universe has led to stable peace.
Why does this awareness succeed where other systems failed? Because it depends only on the obvious facts of biology and society. The air we breathe, water we drink, and food we eat are all endlessly recycled through our bodies, passing from one organic form to the next and from person to person. Our genetic code unifies us in an incontestable way: we are indeed one family of life. On a social level, we depend entirely on others for goods, power, housing, roads, and every other convenience and necessity. I often feel moved by deeper and more spiritual links between my inner consciousness and the outer living world, but the factual and profound interconnection that I find so sustaining does not depend on mysticism.
Although many lead valuable lives without understanding the full scope and scale of our glorious predicament, anyone who learns to see the big picture in this way can feel successful. With such awareness it doesn’t matter if you live in a mansion or a hovel. It doesn’t matter if you are loved by many or nearly alone. You know you are but a small piece of something enormous and myriad-faceted, and that any experience at all is both magical and essential to the whole.
This is my felt reality. It is not theoretical. Admittedly, there are times when I forget and slip back into the murky nightmare of isolation. But more and more often I remain in touch with this immanent fact of life.
Whenever I start thinking of my personal situation as overly significant and my trials as unbearable, I remind myself of this fact: With some seven billion humans on earth, reciting each individual’s name at the rate of one per second would take more than two hundred years!
How important can any of our trials really be in such an ocean of humanity? The most reliable way to find solace in the face of this awesome truth is to welcome our vital and dynamic immersion in the vast and abundant whole.
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Last reviewed: 27 Jul 2011