During a trip to the Red Sea, three of us got into a discussion about life. In the course of our conversation, one asked, “What’s the most significant accomplishment you’ve experienced in life?” He then went on to say, “For me, it’s my marriage to my second wife. Our relationship is wonderful and my life is so much fuller with her in it.”
The second said, “I’ve had numerous accomplishments that I’m proud of, but leaving the practice of law and taking a teaching position at a small university is the most significant step I’ve taken. It’s enabled me to affect the lives of many students and even some of the faculty. Nothing has been more rewarding to me than that.”
Then they turned to me and asked, “Well?” All I could think was, “I feel guilty for not immediately saying that the most significant experience I’ve had is my marriage of fifty-four years, my children and grandchildren and the close, wonderful relationship I’ve enjoyed with them, my numerous friends and many of my patients.” But all that didn’t ring true. Several moments later and to my own surprise, I blurted out, “I believe my most significant accomplishment is that I have finally come to accept me, with my warts, scars, shortcomings, fears and insecurities. It’s a work in progress and I doubt that I’ll ever be able to do it 100%. Nevertheless, I have finally learned to laugh at my failings, minimize my anger and defensiveness and, most of all, to be who I am. I’m finally able to say what I think or feel, without overwhelming fear of what others will think. In a sense, I’ve come to peace with myself. I’m comfortable in my own shoes and I no longer have to strive as hard to achieve, do better, or climb higher and faster than everyone else in order to believe that I’m okay. I’m almost embarrassed to say this but, sometimes, in spite of all my insecurities and inadequacies, I’ve even come to think I’m worthy of being loved without having to earn it. Conversely, in the past, I always had the feeling that I had to live up to a certain standard in order to gain approval or love. Ironically, even when I did, I rarely experienced a lasting sense of sufficiency.”
Later that evening, I laid in bed reflecting on my response. For a moment, I thought, “maybe my answer should have been my relationship with my wife, children, grandchildren, friends and the many people I’ve cared for throughout my professional career. I could have added that the degrees I’ve obtained that I thought were impossible goals for me, the articles I’ve written, the pictures I’ve taken and, most of all, the hearts I’ve touched were my most significant accomplishments.” But, inside, I knew that those achievements, though extremely meaningful to me, were really my attempt to somehow prove to others, but far more to myself, that I was okay, that others loved me and that I mattered. All of which was a testimony to the fact that I must have started out with the feeling that I wasn’t good enough, or worthy of being loved. It also made me think that I have spent most of my life at war with myself, experiencing constant conflict over what I thought and what I shared; what I wanted and what I dared ask for; what I believed and what I could afford to risk exposing to others.
Earlier in my life, I erroneously believed that if I added enough degrees, money, possessions or accomplishments to my persona, I’d be okay. Now, I’m fully aware of how many sad individuals I know who have accomplished far more than I can ever hope to, but are still unhappy with themselves. Based on this, I believe that probably everyone lives their life as though they are actors in a play called “Striving To Be Okay”. Each of you, in your own unique way, climbs a mountain of your own choosing. Some of you commit to becoming champion athletes. Others of you attempt to win scholastic marathons, engage in power struggles, or seek fame and fortune. Still others concentrate on outward appearance, trying to be thinner, better dressed and more attractive than your peers. Let me add that not all mountains are necessarily positive. There are those that help you to become the quintessential pain in the butt, the champion complainer, the perpetual screw-up, the damaged victim, or the party animal who is constantly drunk or wasted. You climb those mountains in order to achieve prominence by virtue of your fears, insufficiencies and inadequacies.
Sadly, however, reaching the top of any of these mountains, good or bad, socially recognized or scorned, never provides the satisfaction or the reward you’re searching for. The truth is, you can’t drink enough, drug enough, make enough money, or accomplish enough to reach a state of mental health, as denoted by a sense of peace with yourself and others. This, by no means, suggests that you should stop climbing mountains, or that you shouldn’t strive to excel and achieve in the world. Instead, what I am saying is that, although these efforts can be ego-boosting and increase your short-term sense of well-being, no amount of money you accumulate, fame you achieve , or good you do will alter the inner feelings of fear, weakness, inadequacy, or insufficiency that everyone shares as a result of their childhood.
This has nothing to do with blaming parents because, for me, the definition of parent is already failure. There are no perfect parents, just as there are no perfect kids. So, the best you can do is attempt to make the fewest mistakes you can. The essential key to living in a healthy manner with yourself and others is to come to grips with and recognize who and what you truly are. Then, you must own, forgive and accept your shortcomings and failures and learn to successfully live with them. That means accept your limitations, forego lamenting your past or sabotaging yourself in the present and refrain from entering situations in the future that are excessively laden with risk, i.e., doomed to fail, or include too little challenge. In the end, you need to see you, accept you, expose you and still be able to view you for the worthwhile person you are.