Success - Is It Only Ever To Love And Be Loved?

Image by Author - A Message For Life

It has taken a twelve-year-old boy this week to remind us what true success in life is - how it is only ever to love and be loved. How easily we can forget this when chasing so many other false versions. I have watched the clip over and over again - the lowering of the microphone, the priest’s reassuring instructions, how he places his hands into his pockets before he starts to speak, his friendly ‘hello’ to the congregation. He is thankful, grateful to those who are attending the funeral, to the emergency services who arrived quickly on the scene and paid their respects at the wake. His mum stands close by. She is not beside him, not on top of him. She is every mummy who despite their fear, lets their child step up on to a stage and believes in them. She is silently yet proudly supporting his every word, her eyes and facial expressions constantly encouraging him, ready and poised if he needs her. My heart breaks each time I watch him step back down, the slightly disorientated look as he listens to the applause, the glance back to his mother for guidance, the boyish nod to check he has done ok, the way the two of them leave, arms interlocked, facing an unexpected future together. As Hamish O’Flaherty gave the eulogy¹ for his father James, killed in the Creeslough explosion last Friday, he talked about someone that he loved - his dad worked hard both at work and around the house, he had no shame and “that was a great thing”, he went to the shops, the movies, the beach, he wore a paint-stained coat because he once stood against a freshly-painted wall. Hamish, the same age as my youngest daughter, wanted to share what he had learned in the last week. He spoke of the fragility of life, of cherishing family and friends, of having homes, a world that God has given us, awash with hope and love. “Use up the time you have wisely,” he said. “Be grateful for your life. It won’t last forever”.

I remembered Dicky Fox’s speech at the end of Jerry Maguire. It was decades ago now that I watched it in the cinema. He was Jerry’s mentor, a sports agent, he operated in a complex sales environment where success could mean all kinds of compromises, but I have never forgotten what he said - “I love my wife, I love my life and I wish you my kind of success”.

It was the kindness, the generosity, the outpouring of selfless love in the community of Creeslough that most journalists talked about this week. Every single person who lost their life mattered in that community, both because of the valuable part they played in it but also because of who they were loved by. “Everyone has a purpose and a relevance to so many others,”² said Alex Kane.

I like, most of us, have chased daft ideas of what success should be, something bigger, something better. I’ve tried to matter to people who don’t matter to me. I’ve listened to what others have told me success should be, some elusive concept that can be measured in status, or title, or profile, or visibility or something worth sharing on LinkedIn. I’ve experienced how fleeting, how transient, how short-term that is. But success is never about where we are seen, it is always about where we are missed. And that is only ever going to be where we are loved.

“You’ll find your thing,” said a woman who didn’t know me very well. In fact, she didn’t know me at all. There wasn’t time nor inclination to discover what made me tick. We were balancing napkins and canapés at one of those events filled with polite conversation and false promises. My career journey can be consolidated into one short sentence now. I can pronounce my ‘elevator pitch’ like a benediction before the lift door even closes. “I do a bit of writing,” I say. “Is that it?” their faces say as they move on to someone else worth networking with. Finding myself forced to do a round-table introduction at an evening with a group of female ‘entrepreneurs’ recently, I wondered how best to describe myself. I wasn’t CEO of anything, I didn’t have a list of achievements, accomplishments, companies I’d taken over or Boards I was Chair of. “I write,” I whispered apologetically when it inevitably became my turn. I was met with blank stares. They looked bemused, turned their backs on me and continued their chats with the angel investor beside them. I thought of Anne Lamott, “If people wanted you to write more warmly about them, they should have behaved better”³. Have they no idea what writers do? And I haven’t written warmly about them. I had questions about our compatibility and so I exited from the role that brought me into contact with them, the next day.

“I HAVE found my thing,” I said to my husband as I pondered what the woman had said. “I love my life”. “Why do people keep making me feel like it isn’t success?” I’ve been told I will make a difference, that it will take a while but that I will succeed. I keep being asked for evidence of something more substantial than what I am already doing. But I don’t know what that success looks like - is it more than the relationships I already have, the conversations I am already having, the friendships I have already found? Maybe, I don’t want anything more than what I already have?

We live in a world that is obsessed with success, one that has turned us into bundles of insecurity, fuelled by anxiety about some bigger difference we are supposed to make, some greater relevance we are supposed to have beyond our own four walls.

On Monday, I read an article. “How was yesterday? Did you have them?” it asked. According to the government, most people were suffering from this ‘troubling psychological phenomenon’. The Department of Health had analysed the figures. It was part of their new ‘Every Mind Matters’ campaign. The article explained the overwhelming angst that peaks around 5pm on a Sunday. They called it the ‘Sunday Scaries’⁴. I’d always known it as ‘Sunday night dread’, when any weight that lifted on a Friday afternoon began to slowly descend again as the weekend drew to a close. I remembered that temptation to open the laptop to get ahead of the emails, or to read the ones that other people were trying to get ahead of, shifting their stress into someone else’s inbox. According to the article, there is a numbing that happens on Sundays - younger generations doomscrolling through social media to nullify their negative feelings, older generations binge-watching junk TV and mindlessly comfort-eating large puddings. A generous glass of red wine could be a wonderful antidote to the ‘Sunday Scaries’ but the government has rules about that. Some of the more virtuous get off their sofas and go to church to get away from the ‘Scaries’, only to listen to sermons about what they should and shouldn’t do, making them feel even more guilty about the contribution or lack-of they are making to the world.

Is that success I thought? It’s minor but I am delighted to have no more ‘Sunday Scaries’. I have no-one to report to, no-one to impress anymore, no-one to appraise or validate my existence. The only thing I do on a Monday is Pilates. As I stretch my calves and look out the window, I am simply future-proofing my legs for old-age. Sometimes, it’s what we don’t have that makes our lives successful - no full diaries, no demands, no toxicity, no promotional ladder, an ease about life and where it takes us, or as Hamish said, the ability to choose how to “use our time wisely”.

Success for me is many things - it is gratitude to be in a world where hope still pervades, it is a three-hour visit from a friend where we laugh and she shows me how to make an origami boat, it is two glasses of prosecco at lunch with another friend who is grieving, it is peace to read a book, contentment with my surroundings, it is time, time and more time to do the things I want, it is messages from people that I want to catch up regularly with, it is not having a boss, it is freedom of expression, a chance to speak my truth, it is an open space to create and do and belong to something far bigger than me, it is producing a body of work I am proud of, it is dreams, it is having a home to be ‘me’ in, it is cherishing the people I love and who love me. It is hard to comprehend the tragic circumstances that led to Hamish’s eulogy this week but we need to listen to what he had to say and stop chasing the wrong type of success. “Be grateful for your life. It won’t last forever”.

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Deborah Sloan

I’m a mum of four girls who recently left a career to focus on writing. I write about leaving, change, career, motherhood and life. @deborahjsloan on Twitter