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Defining what is a 'fulfilling life'


July 10, 2019
I find myself thinking of my grandmother these days up in Midland, in her little house that she's always lived in since I was born.

At 88, I think she can proudly say that she's lived her life the best that she could. She raised eight children, including my father, as a single mother, and every one of her kids became successful in life.

I feel like the same can be said for my parents as well. They raised all three of their children so that everyone is thriving and pursuing their dreams (even if that means venturing as far as Vietnam, for one of them). Now they live happily in retirement, their mortgage paid off, without any worries.

Sometimes I also reflect on my old grade school classmates. When I go on Facebook, I'll occasionally pull up their profiles with their smiling faces, embracing their spouses and children. Many of them still live in the area.

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They've all achieved the American Dream, if not fully then at least in part.

I can't help but ponder about how different a path I have chosen from all of them up to this point: a man sailing abroad on the wind of adventure, grasping for the next destination, the next experience. No roots, so to speak.

But that is my choice. I understand that many in my age group and culture are (for now) foregoing the opportunity to build a steady, secure career in exchange for seeking out and harvesting golden fields of experiences. These, we believe, create the true foundation of a life well lived.

Are we wrong? Are we setting ourselves up to fail?

While traveling, I've realized how the definition of

"life fulfillment" varies widely between individuals, cultures, ages and generations. That internal checklist we use to judge whether we're on the right track is different for everyone at different points in life. Personal projects, marriage, family, home ownership, success: priorities differ.

We create this framework for ourselves, too. Or else we adopt it from society or someone we know and merely sign off on it. But how we choose to measure the fulfillment of our lives is ultimately up to us, which opens up interesting questions regarding what one actually needs to feel content, or what contentment truly is.

This difference especially strikes me when I come across people who claim no interest in traveling. "How could you not desire to spend your short life trying to see it all?" I want to ask them, but don't. They've chosen other long-term goals to pursue.

My local friends here in Vietnam muse about how they wish they could travel and enjoy that untethered sense of freedom that I do, but their culture is against them in that respect. The traditional Asian attitude has long been that one always sticks close to and supports the family, no matter what. Living off savings after one retires is a mere dream for many, so parents bank on the presumption that their children will care for them when they are older.

In other words, you fulfill your "life duty" by looking after your kin. Step away from that, and you are considered an ungrateful and selfish child. Not something that one likes weighing on their conscience.

This focus toward the family is also true in other conservative societies that I've passed through, where gender roles are a lot more rigid, too. I imagine people also do feel a genuine sense of contentment from taking on these socially assigned responsibilities.

Then there's the fact of how subjective these markers of achievement really are to circumstance.

I don't pin my happiness to the goal of becoming a billionaire because I don't see it in my cards. It's highly improbably for me, although for some people it is within reach.

Similarly, I think about many people I've encountered in the world—such as the old, crippled, poor folks here in Vietnam who wander the streets in baggy clothes, trying to sell trinkets to passersby—and it chills me when I consider how they probably cannot even afford to dream of things that you and I plan for in our lives without thinking. I get a sense of the absolute, crushing wall that must exist in their minds between them and any serious thoughts of one day owning a nice house with a lawn, going anywhere far and having a stable life.

It makes me again wonder what a fulfilling life exactly is.

Email Andrew at at.wernette@gmail.com.

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