Winning and losing at life. What a strange concept, as if life were a competition. Success has an infinite number of definitions, depending on what you have decided a goal of life might be. You can choose to pursue an extension of one of humans’ evolved habits: reproduction, accumulation of resources, securing a home… or you can develop thematic variations, and chase a high salary, a body of work, miles of exploration. You can even choose sociable battles such as charitable ventures. There is a good long list of possibilities.
DEFINITIONS OF SUCCESS
We tend to look for evidence. We love medals, uniforms, badges, signs, titles. We like to collate things into collections, galleries, portfolios. They act as rungs on a conceptual ladder, without which we believe we cannot progress.
Where do we get our definitions of success? From parents, from carers, from colleagues, from our society, from daydreams, sometimes, born of loneliness and a sense of powerlessness. Think of the popularity of superhero movies, and how they feed on an unexpressed desire to escape the run of the apparently mundane, to be someone.
All these things are uncertain. We discover that, once accumulated, resources are desperately fragile. We knew it in our hearts, but we ignored it. It seemed that, if we turned a blind eye to death, it wouldn’t really happen. But as we get older, the invulnerability of youth gives way to realism.
Bereavement, in particular, reminds us of the essential uncertainty of things. Someone we love is taken away, and with it goes a piece of our assurance that we can rely on our environment to support us. This is intimately linked to trust.
Bereavement and trust seem unrelated. Isn’t trust what is broken by unfaithfulness? But this is just what some people feel, albeit unconsciously, that life has betrayed them somehow. Death can be experienced as a betrayal of trust, even when it was not planned as such by the person who has died.
When things are taken away from us, we experience uncertainty. This takes away our faith, our trust, that the world will support us. We go quiet. We do not tell anyone (even ourselves) what we are feeling. We become sulky and dead, like a summer flower in winter.
In time, we can learn to accept loss.
I have watched person after person rail against the tide, shouting at the world for taking things away. Where is my ex-partner? Where is the money I used to have? Where is my home? My family? My reputation?
Happiness can never come from that place. Anger, exasperation and despair tend to spread anger, exasperation and despair.
AN ALTERNATIVE MODEL OF SUCCESS
The thing about loss, is that it is particular to us. On the other side of the world, someone is suffering a loss, and you cannot feel a thing. This is only because you are separate from that person.
Imagine your arms constantly pulling to hold the world to you. Imagine your muscles desperately striving to gather all your resources, friends, family and achievements to yourself, to stop them being taken away from you. That is tiring. Yet that is exactly what we do every day when we cherish ourselves above other people.
There is, fortunately, another way of living. It involves letting go, and opening our arms wide. We drop everything we were holding, and the sense of liberation is enormous.
This new kind of success does not need a medal, uniform, badge, sign or title. We simply accept that others are at least as special as we are. We no longer need to accumulate anything.
A DIFFERENT VIEW
When we open our arms, and cancel out the separation between ourselves and others, life becomes easier.
In particular, suffering becomes easier to accept. The relative importance of self and others becomes equalised, and therefore we can see reactions to suffering as a kind of illusion. Why should I feel agonised if resources pass from me to you? Why should you feel agonised if resources pass from you to others?
Uncertain wins are no longer sought. We can sit, and walk, and live, without hanging on excessively to desired outcomes.
It takes a lot of practice and self-discipline sometimes, but it is possible. From the inside out, we change. Our old models of success fade away, and in their place comes a quiet freedom.