So having emerged into adulthood as a product of modern era psychology, support groups, inspirational spirituality and personal development, I really can’t remember the first time I was asked this question:
If money was no object and success was guaranteed, what would you do?
I understand the value of a question like this. It is meant to shake a person out of her preconceived notions of what is possible. It is meant to confront pessimism and cultural conventions while encouraging vision, imagination and believing in one’s dreams. I must have been struck hard by its lessons very early. By the time I was thirty and part of a career-and-life-success-type mastermind group, it was posed, yet again, as part of an inspirational exercise and I was able to answer truthfully, “This. Exactly what I do now, only ‘more.’” — Meaning, with more structure and stability, more elaborate projects re work, and greater access to travel and alternative health resources. But the core of my life and work would be the same. Unlike everyone else in the group who had dream lives they were not living (and that felt very out of reach), I was living the life I felt was most authentic. I was walking the path I felt was in alignment with my purpose, gifts and desires. (It was a troubled, continually destabilizing, life in many ways due to chronic illness and, despite the best of most self-loving intentions, not really understanding my limits and the effects of marginalization, but it was as authentic as possible under those conditions.)
This question, and other imaginative exercises, genuinely did help me strengthen my self-esteem, nurture my willingness to forge my own path and instilled the understanding that real success is defined by the degree to which one’s life is an authentic expression of one’s values.
But like many aspects of the personal and spiritual development movements, I now question it’s true meaning and value. I’ve come to understand that I could have earned its gifts differently. I could have nurtured similar qualities through:
- community and village mindedness, instead of self-satisfaction
- relational understanding, instead of individual understanding
- initiation and rites of passage, instead of vision boards and group exercises performed in conference venues or workshop rooms
And I will tell you why I am questioning and wondering. Because after decades of living a life that was troubled, but authentic (a life that never fully manifested, or even stabilized, despite the fact that I was following the formula designed to make dreams come true) I realized I was missing a crucial piece of that authenticity: a fuller acceptance of my illness and the defining impact it has on my life.
And once I began to sit at the feet of that great teacher, I saw that not having done so was what had caused the meaningless suffering …
And once I began to earn the gifts that come from asking different kinds of questions, I saw that dream fulfilment was not what life is for …
And once I mourned the death of all of my worldly dreams and learned to live peacefully within the defined space of the illness, I realized that, despite all my hard won authenticity, I felt useless …
And once I heard tell that “usefulness” is a spell we cast in our culture to help determine the worth of ones life – that it renders the body a tool, equates the person to the labour they are capable of, and requires that we chase self(dream)-fulfilment in order to be free, I realized that productivity and service must be separated within my efforts, the former forever abandoned for the later …
And a new question emerged …
If money is in short supply, physical stamina low, consistency faltering and success is by no means guaranteed to yield fruit in your lifetime, if indeed, it ever comes,
what would you do?
Now there’s a question worth asking! I think I’ll practice that for a while and see what comes.