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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fulfillment Depends on Success

Simmering Stew of Fulfillment
So a couple of weeks ago,this piece in the Sunday Review came out when we were in Boston visiting colleges with the 11th grader. It’s about fulfillment, which the author, a 66 year old woman called Emily Fox Gordon (EFG) describes as “an outlandishly oversized gift,” and I would have missed it, if not for a friend sending me the link.

The article turned out to be a fitting counterbalance to the kick-off of what people have indicated is a very anxiety-producing process. At first read, it’s a reminder to consider the scope of a whole life, to keep in perspective this college thing, rife as it is with symbolism. Or actual reality, really, of the young ‘un stepping out into her independent life. College is important, sure, but it’s not necessary to turn getting in into a completely fraught situation. This is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t want my child to drive herself into the ground in pursuit of acceptance to some top school. So remembering what life goals are worth striving for can put the process into perspective. For me, I mean. To prevent adding to the pressure she puts on herself.

Fulfillment. That’s an interesting goal for old age. I must have mentioned before that I used to wish for wisdom when I am old. Now that I know a bit more, I’m thinking, “Uh-oh, careful what you wish for, Hope.” Wisdom. Yeesh. That can be scary. Like considering the futility or absurdity of existence. Do I really want to grok life that way? Perhaps not. Fulfillment seems a better goal. Growing old and feeling fulfilled is definitely on my wish list. Even if EFG says, “it’s a dubious gift, because you receive it only when you’re nearing the end.” Well, it’s a gift I’ll take, if I can. According to EFG, fulfillment is milder than happiness, because it contains detachment and perspective, which I agree are not usually linked to moments of happiness.

So. Fulfillment. I could go for that. Who couldn’t?  Well, I’ll tell you who couldn’t: a failure. That’s right, EFG says so right in her essay. 

“A failed life can’t be a fulfilled one.”


“It has to have been a success.”


“It has to have been a success, though not necessarily the documentable kind. It can be a parental or marital or civic success, or an entirely private one….”

Ok. That’s better. Because, so far, mine has been mostly undocumented.

“But success is only a necessary condition.”

Oh. Go on.

“A life of brilliant accomplishment that ends at 40 can’t have been fulfilled.”

I suppose not. Though we could argue about that, at least when thinking about war heroes or something. People devoted to a cause, or thrust into situations requiring heroism, who die in pursuit of their ideals. 

“Years are a requirement. One must have lived most of a standard lifetime, and be inclined to assess it.”

Sounds plausible. I fully intend to. Since I’ve been assessing my life all along, why would I stop?

Upon closer examination, apparently, fulfillment turns out to be a complicated, slow-cooked stew. Success simmered with ambition and one’s relationship to ambition figures as well. Time passing and perspective are necessary ingredients, as is a smidge of detachment. This recipe involves care and attention, Readers. It’s not crockpot pulled pork, which just requires a little Coke, a lot of onions, a hunk of meat and you’re done.

This reminds me that in all my discussions about success, the people who have felt most successful are those who feel that their ambition and their accomplishments are in balance with one another. Those who feel unsuccessful may have unrealized ambitions gnawing at them; or they may not even realize what their ambitions are. Sometimes it’s hard to untangle them from all the knots of obligation and everyday goings-on.

Although, not to be a fly in the ointment, isn’t fulfillment just another emotion and therefore as fleeting and intermittent as all emotions? If all emotions are insubstantial, why is any one emotional state better than another to aim for?

Hmmm. So maybe fulfillment isn’t something to aim for; maybe, like happiness, it’s a byproduct of a well-lived life. Which brings me back to the basic question of how to determine what a well-lived life is. Which brings me back to accomplishments. Outcomes. Successes.

At least with accomplishments, you can remind yourself of them by pulling out those report cards or awards or whatever. They are tangible. I can see I’m getting into trouble here. My anxiety level is ramping up. Must have accomplishments and successes to feel intermittent fulfillment later on in life.

Accomplishments. Oy. What if you’re getting a bit long in the tooth for racking up accomplishments of your own?

Oh, that’s what your children are for. Right? So maybe that whole detachment-fulfillment-step back-and-review-life thing is a total crock of baloney. Maybe after all the best approach to life, especially if you have unrealized ambitions and dreams, is to foist them on those children who have sucked up so much of your time and energy that you have failed to achieve your own. 

So get that kid into the most prestigious college possible. Make sure she has high expectations and do what you can to help her claw her way towards them. Lean in, lean over, lean on. Otherwise, what will you buoy your faltering self-esteem with in your declining years?

Phew. I feel better now. I was lost in a wilderness of contentment for a few moments. Now I'm back. I’m hoping for a Nobel Prize or an Oscar out of them. Or both. Yeah, both. Why not dream big for those kids? They’re just starting out.


On a much lower note, I am overcome by a need for new jeans. Now that higher rise jeans are back in favor, I cannot bear my jeans. Things are welling over there. I need a higher rise to lock and load – a term I learned from "What Not To Wear." Stacey and Clinton used it to refer to proper fitting bras, but  I’m talking about my hips. It’s my prerogative. Just as it’s my prerogative to totally understand the whole free range kid movement, and be unable to join it, fully.

Maybe if I rack up a few accomplishments of my own, I can relax about where my kids go to college. So, I guess fulfillment will have to wait, because I’m firing up my ambition. I will start with new jeans. Believe me, that's a challenge.

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