We are conditioned to think of "success" in terms of wealth, of accumulation of property and objects, or of extensive power. These are rather easy to achieve when born into affluent or influential circumstances. What about most of the rest of us?
If we compare ourselves to society's or someone else's standard of success, how can we ever feel successful? Really, comparatively few become extensively rich or hugely famous. And certainly, do most of those who are famous deserve such accolades? Snookie of Jersey Shore? The Kardashians? Oh, where are the divas of yesteryear, the Gabor sisters for example, who were famous simply by being so enchantingly fabulous?
Consider how different living with AIDS is from those terrifying early days. If you were diagnosed with AIDS in the '80s, your life expectancy dwindled to two years. I progressed to AIDS in 1995, yet still walk the earth. That alone is a success, but certainly, it was not a battle won without its challenges. Before you can achieve success, define what success means to you. Is it a loving partner? Enough financial resources to enable you to travel? Or is it getting through the day being adherent to your medication regimen? Your successes are personal. Furthermore, success doesn't matter if it doesn't make you happy or fulfilled. Is the billionaire who yearns for a meaningful relationship successful?
What of my friend Patty who was a teenage mother and a high school dropout who raised her child brilliantly and who currently owns a home, has a great career, is in a strong marriage and whose daughter recently earned her master's degree?
Or my buddy Tim, who lost his wife in a horrible car accident not long after they were married, who has dealt with that loss, and has opened his heart once more to love?
Or my mother who, when diagnosed with emphysema, immediately quit smoking and two years later, braves each day solidly, armed with oxygen and a battery of medications.
They are successes, all.
I went to high school with a guy named John Green. He had gleaming green eyes with flecks of gold, thick, unruly, dark brown curls and was the smartest, most creative person I knew. We would walk home together after school and I would revel in listening to him speak of history on any subject, and describe movie plots so well and in the most exacting detail, I felt as if I were there. In retrospect, I suspect he might have had a variation of Asperger's syndrome. Brilliant, almost an idiot savant, with few social skills. Of course, he was teased mercilessly for his oddness and his creative dreaminess. His nickname, much to his chagrin, was "Ancient Green." I found it to be quite apt and somewhat romantic. John was happiest reading about ancient cultures, dreaming of what it must have been like to live within them, and writing beautiful poetry about them. I was deeply in awe and loved him -- not sexually, but rather, spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally.
We drifted apart after high school. I struggled through self-examination, alcoholism, testing HIV-positive, and debilitating illness. Today, I am grateful to have good health, a wonderful home, supportive friends, and many in my family whom I hold dear. Not to mention the best dog in the world.
About 10 years ago, on my way to the bike track along the lake, I stopped at a traffic light. A street person stood near me waiting to cross. He was filthy, with matted hair, wearing a torn parka. He stood dreamily looking up at the sky. I recognized him by his eyes, those sparkling green, flecked-with-gold wonders. It was John. I told him who I was and asked if he remembered me. He tore himself from his reverie, looked at me and mumbled "Uh, yeah." The traffic light changed and he hurried to cross the street.
Since then, I spot him occasionally, shuffling along dreamily in the park as I tear along on my bike. Sure, he ended up filthy, half crazy, and homeless. But all he ever wanted was to be left alone to dream his dreams.
So who is the success? Is he or am I?
Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best you are capable of becoming.
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