He looked tired, sad and smaller than I ever remembered him to be. I wanted to shake him, to shock him, and to tell him to stand up and fight like he had always taught me to do. Yet every time I started to argue with him, he turned off his hearing aid and said he needed to get some sleep.
The routine was the same every night of the two weeks prior to my father’s passing. I know what surrender looks like. I saw it in his eyes when he told me he was ready to go.
If he had lived a long life and was fatally ill, maybe I could understand his death wish. He was only 59. Besides going deaf, he had epilepsy and a brain tumor. Yet the doctors said the tumor was operable. However, they had recommended, and the family insisted, that he stop working. That was the death sentence.
It is not that he didn’t try. For a year, he went on trips with my mother and tried different hobbies. The seizure he had on the cruise ship and his inability to focus on what he called “waiting-to-die diversions” made him grumpier and sadder by the day. By the time we started our nightly ritual, he had fled to a mental ward.
IS SUCCESS SWEET OR TOXIC? I’m still haunted by my father’s death. In searching for answers, I found psychologists Paul Pearsall’s book, Toxic Success. Dr. Pearsall writes, “Success poisons our life when we begin slipping from a sense of ample opportunity to fully enjoy life, into a nagging sense of obligations to seek a better life.” The continual striving for greater accomplishments and the craving to accumulate more than we need are never satiated. We seek the perfect job, the perfect home, the perfect pet, and the perfect vacation. We starve our natural needs for love and connection by feeding the appetite of our materialistic needs. After decades of driving ourselves into the ground, we don’t know how to climb out.
“I’ve was never UNHAPPIER than the moment when I finally attained the level of success I had devoted my life to achieve,” said eight-time Olympic gold medalist Matt Biondi. “Success enslaved me, because once I seemed to have it, it ended up having me.”
I have come to call my fathers overriding illness, “The Burden of Greatness.” With the best of intentions, our parents raise us to excel and our society persuades us to achieve. Being ordinary is not an option. We work 50-60 hours a week or more to achieve the “American Dream,” and then to support the lifestyles that imprison us. We become too busy, too distracted, and too absorbed in our work to realize that we have forgotten how to find joy in the moment.
My father not only forgot how to find joy, the possibility of not being seen as the successful business man terrified him. Who would he be? Why would anyone care about him? He totally lost his sense of self.
Then we pass on this drive to our children. As a result, American children are learning how to strive and compete, but not how to be content and happy. Then they deaden themselves with TV, video games, and possibly drugs and alcohol.
BRAIN TIP: Maybe it’s time to redefine success. I’m not suggesting we throw out the merits of excellence. But maybe we can also teach our children to equally honor contentment, calmness, and the enjoyment of spending time with family, friends, and in nature.
For me, I’m working on my success addiction by looking at where I can live with mediocrity. I miss my father, but I do not have to live out his life. I am closing my office doors earlier at night, re-evaluating ALL of my purchases, turning down business to stay home with my friends and possibly, meet a mate with whom I can share what is extraordinarily ordinary in my life.
What can you do to make life more blissfully ordinary?