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Reflection on Growing Slightly

by Mary Mathis

Mary Mathis.  Self-portrait,  from the series, “My Mother Lives in You,” Washington D.C. 2018.

Mary Mathis. Self-portrait, from the series, “My Mother Lives in You,” Washington D.C. 2018.

When people told me I was “going places,” I believed them. I turned those simple sayings into the truth. I left Iowa, and I forced success into my life. I interned and worked at places I had only dreamed of. I went to countless countries and worked abroad. I did the things everyone expected me to do at the age of 20.

Still, a dull ache of wanting more of something breached my stomach. I was deeply unhappy, and had no clue why these successes weren’t filling my cup.

I was told that success leads to happiness. Now I know that was a trap. A trap that stems from a work-centric society that was founded on making yourself bigger, faster, and stronger than everyone else around you to compete, and win, against others in the Big Game of Life.

I had to come to the conclusion that I am not in this world to feel better than someone else; to prove that I can do something others can’t do. Validation from others is a never-ending thirst that refuses to be quenched.

Be skeptical of this societal brainwashing; that somehow geographic location means you’ve “made it.” That working yourself to health deterioration means you are working harder than everyone else. That working for a certain company will be all you need to obtain a feeling of happiness. That all these little sayings, “make something of yourself,” and “achieve your dreams,” comes with the sacrifice of enjoying growth, and spending your time day-dreaming.

I’m still focused on success; it’s something I can’t unlearn. But after a year away from school, my perspective on what success is has changed drastically. It was a year where I learned that I don’t have to work my entire day away and miss the sunlight outside. I realized that living with less is a sacrifice I have to make if I want to love my job and enjoy my time.

There is always another option. Another way to live. One that fulfills you so deeply, you forget you were ever vying for “success” that other people had and you didn’t.

There are too many people, too many stories, for yours to just be wishing and hoping and lusting for others’ approval and someone else’s idea of what your life should look like. I had to look deeply inside myself and understand how much I appreciate rest, time to think, outdoors, and relaxation, before I understood that my idea of success would be letting go of everyone else’s. 

I went from people telling me that they were excited for my future, to telling me they’re happy to see me succeeding. How ironic that when I’m doing the least work I’ve ever done, I’m receiving compliments about my success.