The Yardstick

Lately I've been called to evaluate the metrics by which we measure success in our lives. What yardstick do we use? It seems that different people use different measures and that perhaps we're all in need of a big dose of standardization in the life-o-meter department. I attended the funeral for the mother of a childhood friend recently. She was also a second mother to me but even so, the death hit me harder than I had expected. Part of it, too, was because this death came almost one year to the day after the death of my own mother. And of course I wouldn't be human if I hadn't engaged in a bit of comparison shopping while going through the activities attendant to death--the funerals and the aftermath of two women who could not have been more different in life and who we celebrated in such divergent ways in death.

My friend's mother had significantly less to work with in many ways than did my own and yet by any measure my friend's mother crafted a much more successful life. The two women knew each other through their daughters but did not have any sort of real relationship. Too bad, too, as my mother could have benefited from the example. Assuming she was interested in improving her life, which she clearly was not.

As I am wont to do, I've been thinking about all of this through the prism of my beloved fantasy books. And as is likely to happen these days, what I'm reading just happens to be weirdly relevant to the events of my life. I've basically stopped questioning this phenomenon as it keeps occurring but I will note in passing that it is mighty strange. Unless you believe that there are no coincidences. But that is a subject for another post. Sometimes life is stranger than fiction.

So I've been revisiting Dragos and Pia and the rest of Thea Harrison's Elder Races world. As you have heard, I'm half in love with Dragos and I pretty much want to be Pia, so I'm enjoying myself immensely and feeling grateful that Ms. Harrison has gifted us with two novellas just one month apart. It's Christmas in July!

A recurring theme in these stories is Dragos' insistence that Pia is his best teacher. Which is ironic because he was born of the Big Bang and evolved through the eons adopting a human form and persona for only the last microsecond of his extremely long existence. In contrast, Pia is a twenty-something half human girl who tended bar before hooking up with the oldest and most Powerful being in the universe. So it seems unlikely that she would have a whole lot to teach him. But she does, in fact.

Because longevity is no guarantee of meaningful impact, as the tale of two mothers in my own life aptly demonstrates. What Pia is teaching Dragos is how to live a life of meaning and purpose. She is showing him how to leave the world a better place than he found it, and how to affect change through love and not might (to be fair, I'm painting a pretty black and white picture here and there is some amount of gray for both Dragos and my mother, but I'll keep to the deep contrasts to make my points).

From the beginning of their story when Pia tries to make reparations for the crime she commits that starts the initial ball rolling, to her use of Dragos' credit card to feed the hungry, to her insistence that Dragos offer assistance to his former enemies, Pia shows Dragos how to be more human and how to live more compassionately, which is the true measure of a successful life, at least in my book--the correct yardstick, if you will.

Based on all of this, I have to ask, what makes for a successful life?  I'm guessing that Dragos, if he contemplated such things, would have felt pretty successful with his vast hoard and large corporate holdings and his legacy of imposing the rule of law on his fellow shapeshifters. But I'm wondering if he would feel the same way after meeting Pia and learning about her definition of a successful life, which involves connection and service and selflessness and a commitment to being human in the very best sense of that word. I think not. I think that Dragos' definition of success has probably evolved in the blink of time since Pia came into his life. And their example is helping me to refine my own definition.

My mother had many years on this earth to make a difference but she became distracted by the false trappings of success, unfortunately. She thought, like Dragos before Pia, that whoever had the most toys at the end of the game wins. Not so. My friend's mother, who died before her time, sadly, understood that the amount of stuff we accrete over the course of our lives is meaningless at the end of the game.

In the end, Walt Whitman got it right in his definition of success; success involves leaving the world a better place than you found it. It involves touching other lives in a way that enhances our humanity. Success involves seeking to improve the lives of others thereby elevating our own existence. Seems like a lot of people never figure that out, my mom included. It makes me sad.

We need teachers to show us the way. And I love learning through the fun and pleasure I get while reading my beloved fantasy novels. There are many riches to be found as we mine these stories for their deeper truths. And we need teachers in reality as well, such as the mother of my friend. Because all yardsticks are not comprised of the same thirty-six inches and the accurate measure of a life requires using the right tools.