“…I kept trying to run away. And I almost did. But it seems that reality compels you to live properly when you live in the real world.” ~Kenzaburō Ōe, A Personal Matter
Recently I listened to an interview with author Kenzaburō Ōe, who won the 1994 Nobel Prize for literature. Ōe, who is now eighty-one, is a major figure in Japanese contemporary literature as well as playing an active role in the Pacifist and anti-nuclear movements.
When asked what accomplishment he was most proud of over his long and distinguished career, he answered, without hesitation, that for the past forty years he has been home every night to tuck his mentally disabled son into bed.
His answer hit me like a physical blow. For a good part of my adult life I was driven by my career.
Of course, I had a family to support. I had to work. But at times I was so focused that I put my own ambitions ahead of my family.
My work was in academia, and for more than twenty years I pursued the elusive tenure-track position. Nearly every professional move I made was carefully calculated to bring me closer to fulltime job security.
I attended conferences, wrote papers, taught overseas, and continually worked on my teaching methods. Then I found it—my dream job teaching English at a small community college in a small town.
About the same time I achieved what for many in the university world is the crème de la crème: a Fulbright research scholarship.
For six months I would live in northern India where I would research, write, and work on building a teaching exchange between the university in India and the college where I taught.
If anything, I thought the Fulbright would help secure my employment.
It didn’t. In a move I will probably never understand, three weeks before I was scheduled to fly home from India, the college ousted me.
At an age when most people are starting to think about retiring with some security, my career and financial stability were swept out from under my feet.
I felt betrayed, angry, devastated, and afraid. My spiritual practice of compassion and acceptance was put to the test. To this day, I have trouble forgiving colleagues who turned on me.
We humans are amazingly resilient creatures, though, and life has a way of presenting us with the lessons we need to learn. In the process of rebuilding a new career, I learned that my most important accomplishments have nothing to do with my resume.
What about you? Are your ambitions outside of yourself?
Job security, a nicer home to live in, good schools for our children are all valid ambitions, but alone they’ll only bring superficial happiness.
In a moment any one of them can disappear.
Instead ask yourself:
- Am I happy?
- Am I calm?
- Is stress a part of my daily life?
- Am I kind?
- Am I compassionate?
- Do I listen when someone needs me?
- Do I do my best?
It’s not easy to redefine yourself outside of a career. Often the first thing we tell a new acquaintance is what we do. I’m a teacher, an artist, a scientist, an entrepreneur, or clerk at a grocery store. It’s almost as if just being human isn’t enough.
Eventually, I was able to look back at the job I’d lost more dispassionately. I saw former colleagues burnt out before the semester started and a climate of vicious college politics. At least four different instructors came and went in three years as they tried to fill the position they’d kicked me out of.
Then I quit paying attention.
After a short stint with the local newspaper, I moved to a quiet, isolated place on the high desert away from town. An online teaching job at a different college gave me enough money to get by, and I began selling some articles and photographs.
Sometimes I still struggle with the underlying feeling that I’m not living up to my potential. After all, I spent years and a lot of money to get a Masters degree. Teaching was my career.
Had I really given it up to live in a dusty little town that looked like it had slipped off the side of the highway?
Time and a meditation practice helps, and whenever those feelings that I should be doing more arise, I have to admit something else as well. I am far less stressed than I have been in years and creatively I’m flourishing.
After listening to the interview with Kenzaburō Ōe one summer afternoon when it was too hot to go outside, I began to read some of his work.
He writes about displacement, about the lies we tell others and the lies we tell ourselves to survive. And he writes about quiet triumphs and living well and with integrity. He writes about the way his mentally disabled son brings unimagined depth to his love.
Today my accomplishments are quiet ones. I try to live as well as I can, practice forgiveness, especially when it’s hard, and to be there when others need me. I try to love well.
My life is far from perfect and there are many things I would still like someday: a home by the ocean, a fireplace, a car with a working air conditioner, and a bottle of Shalimar perfume. But I don’t base my happiness on these things, and if I never get any of them, it won’t matter.
Even though all my work is online, I still sometimes get tired from grading papers or finishing an article at the last minute, but it doesn’t stress me out in the same way it used to because I work on my own schedule.
We probably all know the maxim it’s the journey, not the destination that matters, and this may be the most important lesson losing my dream job reinforced.
The meaning of accomplishment has changed. I have less money but more control over my time. And the time I do have, I never feel is wasted even if I’m just sitting and staring out the window.
There’s beauty in simplicity, and peace can be found when we’re happy with what we have instead of what we want.
What do you want to accomplish most in life?
Success and happiness image via Shutterstock