Scaling Down

I opened the door to my Grandmother’s new apartment and immediately spotted my Grandmother propped in her wheelchair, waiting in the middle of the empty room. The wheelchair seemed much larger than normal due to the smallness of the room. Granny tried to smile but I could see a small tear slowly gliding down her left cheek. My Grandfather had passed away three years earlier and the time had come for my Granny to move to a smaller unit that offered more round the clock assistance and care. A woman after my own heart, my Granny’s biggest concern was how she was going to decorate her new, much smaller home. Together, we waited for the few comforts from home that would fit in to her new space.

Scaling down is never easy. In this world we are taught that more is better. We want more clothes, more food, more home, more money. Success and happiness are measured by those who are able to obtain the most.  Possessions become our validation.  We work so hard for stuff- we want the house, the car, the yard. The more we have, the more we want. The more we buy the more we are forced to work. It’s a vicious cycle, one that we will spend our whole lives chasing, one that will escape us every time in the end because no matter how much stuff we have, we will all eventually die.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though, and I’m pretty convinced that my Granny has it figured out. One day I asked her for a piece of advice that she would give to her younger self. She thought for a second and then said something like, “Get to know yourself. Love yourself. Love and appreciate others in your life. Don’t spend your life trying to accumulate wealth. You can never take it with you when you go.”

That all sounds good in theory but what is the purpose of ambition if I don’t aim to achieve money, power or possessions?  I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I don’t think it means that I would somehow need to turn off my ambition. I believe ambition is a blessing, one of those things that propels humanity forward. The problem arises when I use my ambition for selfish reasons, often at the cost of someone else. When I view the world as a competition, it is hard to be happy for someone else’s success. The bigger someone else becomes the smaller I feel. I become jealous of what someone else has. I begin to covet material items like new furniture or designer clothing. If I allow myself to live in a state of constantly wanting more, I will never be satisfied. I will never be fulfilled. I will never be at peace with my life. Instead, what if I am able to use my ambition to serve others with the goal of contributing something good into the world?  What if I can begin to see the world as a collaboration instead of as a competition? What if I can truly replace greed and envy with love in my own life?

My Grandfather’s obituary outlines most of his worldly accomplishments: “Attended Rice University. Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer. Retired after 50 years of service. Appointee to the Texas State Finance Commission.” The accolades go on.

What it won’t tell you is that my Grandfather started his successful career in banking as the bank’s janitor. He slowly worked himself up the ladder by serving others. At his funeral, people didn’t talk much about his business success or about the beauty of his home. They talked instead about how my Grandfather blessed their lives in some way. My Grandfather dedicated his life to loving and serving others. He made the world a brighter place, not because of his successful banking career, but because of the positive impact he had on those around him. He never failed to realize his higher calling.

I don’t think that serving others means that we will be destitute somewhere or that we have to become organic farmers and grow our own food. It just means doing whatever we do out of love and not out of our own egos. When we invest our time, energy, and our life on doing our part, we might possibly still be considered successful in the world’s eyes. We might still have lots of stuff. But, we realize that our success is not validated by our material wealth. When we stop chasing the dollar we become free from the vicious cycle and can truly live a life of joy and abundance. In the end, all that will matter is how well we loved while we were here.