What is success?
What is enough?
Generally, I am a cheerful soul, content with my life. My daughters love me, my husband loves
me, my friends love me and I love them back, fiercely. As a psychologist, I know that it is our relationships that bring us ultimate happiness, which has always been the case for me as well.
So it was unusual for me to fret about my level of success. Nevertheless, this is what began to happen, paradoxically at this moment when I had achieved the most success of my life.
Recently, I met my newest good friend, Deb, on the canal path in our town. The canal stretches for miles, paralleling the beautiful Delaware River. Tall trees line the path, Canadian geese honk and waddle past, with the occasional blue heron winging by. Clothed in our fleece and hats, Deb and I walked vigorously. She assumed I was feeling great, with my book doing well and with the exciting media coverage I have received. But I was not feeling great at all.
“I feel bad that the book hasn’t caught on nationally. I always knew that was a long shot. But people love this book, and I think if Flashback Girl could only get a little national spotlight, readers would get a lot out of it. One book reviewer told me it should be a NY Times bestseller. But that is nowhere close to happening."
“Isn’t the book doing well? It seems like it is doing very well.”
“Yes, for a self-published book. Yes.”
“Why are you discouraged?”
“I had dreams of Flashback Girl becoming a huge seller.”
Deb sighs, with equal parts concern, care, and impatience. Deb is a striver too. She is politically active, very successful and has raised three children, each more gobsmackingly impressive than the last. Deb knows about ambition.
“Numbers. Why do we do this to ourselves? Numbers… Let me ask you, how many books did you initially hope to sell?”
“Then it became 500.” My voice pitched lower. I could see where this was going.
“Right. And even if you got on Oprah, there would be some way that you would think you didn’t do as well as another Oprah book. Numbers are endless.”
We walked; I was quiet. “Yes, you are right. My problem is that I have always wanted to achieve a higher level, the highest level really, and I never quite do. I wanted to go to Julliard pre-college, and I didn’t get it. I wanted to go to an Ivy League college, and I didn’t. I applied for a Rhodes Scholarship and I didn’t get it. I could go on and on. I’m like that asymptote line in math, always approaching the desired curve but never quite getting there.”
We walked some more. Deb said, “Did you actually apply to an Ivy League college?”
“No.” We laughed.
“Well, there you go. But you see, there’s always something more, something higher, something still out of reach.”
I regarded my new friend, huffing along the canal path with me. She is possibly the most ambitious friend I have, but she was modeling serenity for me, serenity which I knew she had worked hard to find.
Later, on the phone with my wise friend Lisa, I began to fret again.
“Why did you write this book?” Lisa asked me. “Let’s remember that.”
“OK, sure. First, I wrote it because I felt driven to write my life story. I had to write it for my own soul. And then, I wrote it for other people, other people who suffer. Burned people, suicide survivors, traumatized people from toxic families and the people who love them… so many people suffer and need to feel understood.”
“Right. And have you helped them?”
“Yes. I hear from people all the time now. Strangers from everywhere. I get emails and cards from all kinds of survivors, thanking me for the book.”
“Which is great. And that’s why you wrote it, right?”
“So, then you are already successful, right?”
“Don’t worry about the numbers, that isn’t what’s important. What’s important is that you are doing what you set out to do, to reach people through your story. You are doing it for love.”
There is some balance, somewhere, between ambition and peace. Without ambition, maybe we won’t work hard, putting ourselves out there, putting in the effort to advance. But ambition can push us too far, into a mindset where what we have is never enough, even if, objectively speaking, what we have is perfectly fine.
I am not an Ivy League, Julliard-trained, Rhodes scholar with a New York Times bestselling book. And Deb would say, even if I were, I would find a new unreached goal to focus on, some new asymptote of a goal which I might not achieve. There is always more.
Here is what my wise mind knows, when I quiet down enough to listen. The people who die at peace are those who have rich, deep relationships, full of devotion and reciprocity. The people who die at peace are those who lived a life full of purpose, who lived according to their values, who contributed love, care or beauty back into the world. Success is not a diploma from Yale (although I really wanted that, so much that I couldn’t even bring myself to apply). Success is being a kind, loving, ethical, conscientious person, day after day, year after year.
When my wise mind contemplates success, I remember Pepere, my father’s father. He was a high school graduate, who never went to college. He had a union job setting type for newspapers. He lived in a small house, never owned a clothes dryer or a single automobile, who cheerfully supported his wife, his son, and his grandchildren. He went to Mass every week and played the piano by ear every night. He knew everyone in his neighborhood. When he retired, he became a crossing guard and the students adored him. Wherever he went, he spread love, warmth and smiles. He died when I was 13 but I will never forget how loved he made me feel.
I believe my Pepere would think I am successful. Not because I am a psychologist, not because I have a doctorate, and not because I wrote a book. I think Pepere would think I am successful because I am loving, loyal and ethical, and because I sincerely try to help people. Because I raised good kids. Because I show up.
What is success to you?
What is enough?
The author's memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.Flashback Girl would make an excellent holiday gift for your loved ones!