The things we leave behind

When most of us think of success, it’s about the things we have accumulated; knowledge, money, seniority and achievements. We derive our satisfaction and happiness from these things based on how favorably they compare to cultural measures. I think about success in terms of who I am becoming, and for me to become the person I envision myself to be, ultimately, my measure of success has as much to do with achievement as it does with what I give up. Wisdom does not come from what we have gained; it comes from what we have lost.

Working on a master plan
Working on a master plan

For a long time I have believed in the power of giving up. While nearly every success guru will tell you that winners never quit and quitters never win, to me, mastery of self is all about letting go. We’re taught to believe that if we never give up, we can eventually conquer all odds. The other way of looking at this is that when we give up the idea that something is impossible, the possible reveals itself.

Nearly everything we achieve in our lives we do so through the process of giving up. We learn to walk by giving up the safety of crawling on the floor. We learn to swim by giving up the fear of drowning. We learn to succeed by giving up the belief that past failures will determine our future. We give things up because we realize that they no longer benefit us. That which once served us in our past, may no longer serve us in our future. The costs outweigh the benefits, we no longer need them. Smoking, overeating, compulsive shopping, unfullfilling work; there’s so much gain by losing these things.

If I were to choose the one thing that allowed me to achieve the greatest success in my life, it would be giving up attachment to control. Once I let go of this compulsion, where I had repeatedly failed in relationships, I found myself happy. Where I felt stressed over business matters, new priorities emerged. My daily mantra of, “Why are people so stupid?” became “How did I get so lucky?”

My little girl was born with a failing liver. If you’ve read my past posts you know that I am descended from Irish Catholics and Jews, so the Irish part of me immediately thought that her illness was somehow divine retribution for my past transgressions. The Jewish part of me was sure that it was going to get worse and that it would cost a fortune. I began thinking about all the great things waiting for her in her future, and at the same time, I began to bargain.

Bargaining is what desperate people do. Alcoholics do it in an attempt to buy their way out of the hopeless situation. It’s negotiating a settlement with the universe so that you can keep doing what you’re doing without real consequence. It’s making a promise to your god that you can’t keep.

Having never been a religious person, it’s hard to suddenly start. I thought about some favors I could call in, but these are usually earned through a history of devotion. I didn’t have any beads or sacred verse, or any holy place, so I followed my wife’s lead and left offerings at the shrine of a revered local Buddhist monk. It was through this small act of leaving something behind that I began to remember the power and significance of giving away in the healing process.

I began to think, what would I really be willing to give up if it would save my daughter’s life? My wife and I we’re jockeying for position on a biopsy to see which one of us has the best liver and I thought of the Monty Python Meaning of Life sketch where a surgical team shows up at the house of an organ donor and says, “We’ve come for your liver,” and the man objects, “But I’m still using it.” The thing is, everything we have is on loan. We get our bodies for as long as we’re able to keep them running. We have jobs for as long as the behavior the company is renting from us in return for a wage can continue to sustain the company.

At the end of our lives, our worth will be measured by what we leave behind. So for my daughter, what is the most valuable thing I can give away? What will be my legacy to her? As the Tao says, “When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.” I need my daughter to get better.

As a good example to Natalie, who will require a special diet, I’ll give up burgers and become a vegetarian. It will be an act of solidarity. Or maybe I’ll give up drinking, to save my own liver in addition to preserving my brain cells and body mass index. I don’t consider any of these acts as a sacrifice, because this implies I’m giving up something of value, whereas none of these things figure significantly in my future. I don’t need to bargain, because I don’t expect to be compensated for abandoning things that I never really needed in the first place.

I believe it’s these small gestures of renunciation that make all the difference. They remind us that very few things in life truly matter, and allow us to create a space for the essentials. Life is a game whereby every time you lose, you realize just how much you have won.

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.”
– Joseph Campbell