I strongly believe, and have written often about, the fact that we are each responsible for our own lives. When we feel victim to circumstances, other people or fate it is hugely disempowering because we don’t feel we are in control of our lives. A large part of my work as a coach involves helping people see their challenges from a different perspective – a more empowering perspective, which gives them more control around dealing with whatever circumstances come along. One of the chapters in my book Being Single, With Cancer is titled You Are Responsible, and this has been a huge theme in my own life.
This concept, though, is distinct from what we often see as being a responsible person. This designation is sometimes laden with judgment about what it means to be a “contributing” member of society or a “success.” Because I have, more often than not, run counter to the commonly accepted definitions (whether real or in my own mind), I have frequently felt like somewhat of a pariah. It seems I am not alone in this, as I regularly come across stories of people who are deeply afraid to follow their heart’s calling in life because it doesn’t seem like the “responsible” thing to do.
Oh how trapped so many of us are by the expectations and standards (again, real or imagined) of a nameless, faceless group of people we don’t even know. A personal example of this in my own life was my belief in the adage, “It is better to give than receive.” Because I had a strong need to be helpful, believing my value came from what I gave, for years I said yes to nearly every request that came my way from serving on boards and committees to helping people move to volunteering my time and listening for hours to the problems of my friends. None of this was necessarily bad, mind you, but I was giving until I was depleted, and there came a point when I realized that my motives were flawed. I was trying to win respect, admiration, recognition and even love for my efforts instead of giving freely from my heart. If those rewards weren’t forthcoming as a result of my efforts, or in sufficient quantities, I felt resentful, and I began to feel resentful a lot!
The other side of that coin was that my own sense of unworthiness didn’t conceive that I could be liked or appreciated unless I was contributing something to the people around me. Paired with my desire to be independent, this made it very difficult for me to ask for help when I needed it. As a result, I needed some pretty big reasons to learn this lesson including: a broken ankle, which left me fairly helpless for several months, followed a few years later by a cancer diagnosis that has repeated itself about every four years since. Thankfully, those did the trick in helping me learn the art of interdependence and boundary-setting. I’m still not perfect in my practice of sharing vulnerably and asking for help, but I’m leaps and bounds from where I used to be, and continuing to practice.
How many of us are following “the rules,” either that we were raised with, or that we perceive to be acceptable to society, to the detriment of our own happiness and satisfaction with life? What prescriptions for a happy life are you currently filling that feel inauthentic to you? Who are you trying to please – parents, law school classmates, a mysterious “them” that you can’t name and don’t even know? How much are you an automaton to your own previously held notions of what would make you happy in life? Are they still your dreams? Or perhaps you believe that your own happiness isn’t even important – that your obligations are more pressing and prestigious – following your “duty” rather than your dharma?
This is the time of year when churches tell the story of the prodigal son, a parable from the Bible repeated often in literature, music, theater and art. The story is about a younger son who demands his half of the inheritance while his father is still alive, and departs the family to fritter the money away in selfish pursuits. He returns home after a painful period of destitution and hardship to beg for mercy, and ask for a position as a servant on his family’s estate. Instead, his father welcomes him with a lavish celebration, killing the fattened calf in his honor for the feast. Jesus shared this parable after the Pharisees and religious leaders scorn him for eating with sinners (i.e. irresponsible members of society who don’t follow the rules).
We often don’t pursue our own happiness – though that very pursuit is a guarantee of the United States Constitution. Perhaps because we worry about how it will look to others: as if we are being frivolous and selfish, or not living up to our responsibilities. Indeed Robert Frost was called lazy by his contemporaries during a period of his life when he raised chickens and lived a simple life on his farm, surrounded by natural beauty, which was the inspiration for his poetry. The father’s welcome of the prodigal son represents the boundless love of a forgiving God who refuses to limit the measure of his grace to those who follow prescribed rules around earning salvation. Its message gives us all permission to “take the road less traveled by,” that is our unique calling.
I have certainly done this with no regrets. In fact, I love my crazy, unpredictable, adventurous, simple and non-traditional life, though it has certainly not always been easy. Despite the challenges, financial hardships and sometimes loneliness, it has given me the space to write, to read extensively, to explore on both physical and spiritual levels, to discover and to share those discoveries with others through my speaking, writing and coaching, and to do what I love with the people I cherish. It’s never too late to find your calling, to live your purpose, to love your life. If I can help, please don’t hesitate to ask.