He drove a beat-up car — jalopy is a nice word — and rented an apartment. He was single. He wasn’t very, as they say, financially “well-off.” He wrote, he observed, he experienced, he analyzed, he read, he traveled. He was free, open, curious, fulfilled, alive. Was he successful?
“Depends on how you define success,” he said to me, in a conversation about the implications inherent in pursuing the writer’s life, the peripatetic life.
I often feel constrained by society’s definition, the capitalist Modern American Society a la Mitt Romney definition: vast amounts of wealth; stocks and bonds; accolades and titles; multiple vehicles; big houses; marriage and kids.
Let me preface this little diatribe by stating that I don’t think any of these things are unequivocally bad — and that each and every one can indeed be the most fulfilling, joy-giving element to someone’s life. One woman may want nothing more than to raise her children in a snug little cul-de-sac, shuttling them to and fro in her safe SUV. Another might want nothing more than to achieve an executive title in her field. The tricky part comes when people feel pressured to conform to certain roles that don’t truly make them happy, simply because they feel pressured to be seen as traditionally successful by their parents, peers and society at large.
Several studies have suggested that once basic needs and desires are met, more wealth does not translate to more happiness; several ‘developing’ countries outshine the United States in regards to overall levels of happiness. Many indigenous cultures — before being colonized and decimated — were certainly very happy living simple, sustainable lives that didn’t include lots of superfluous material things and distractions. Wealth and prestige and progress can all be good things, but if they are pursued relentlessly and single-mindedly, this free-market, first-world mindset can cause environmental degradation and other ills.
To many, a house and a car and a career and a family are the pinnacle of a fulfilling life — security, prestige, and the nicest decorated house on the block.
But what about the girl who feels she just has to get married by a certain age or face being seen as an outcast, a spinster? Or the person who chooses a career path simply because their family wants them to, or it pays well, or makes them feel validated? Or the person who takes on mortgage and debts to accumulate these outward signs of having made it, only to be eternally enslaved by these all-important physical possessions? At what cost, and what do we sacrifice, to achieve conventional success? Can we step outside the paradigm, have the courage to let down those around us, to be true to ourselves? What does your inner self really want?