I’ll be 29 in 17 days. Each year, my birthday comes and with it I get the dreaded undercurrent of, “Did I do enough yet?” Each year, I think, “Wow, I thought I’d be further along by now.” Further along into what, I don’t know. I raise the bar on myself constantly. I dangle a carrot – my enoughness – in front of my face, only to keep pushing it back, the reward of my efforts delayed, further away, constantly eluding me. My birthday is my New Year’s, that day when I evaluate my year on a loop until I can determine whether I had spent it well, done enough, carried out the dreams of my younger self, the same dreams I attached to myself for validation, approval, and the desire to prove to the world that, not only could I play their game, I could win it.
Each year, I hold my life up to the light and examine it, finding the flaws and the cracks, rating it, critiquing it, telling myself, “good job” in some places, and berating myself in others. For that summer before college when I dropped all my high school friends in lieu of going to the gym for four hours a day to get a new, shiny body to present to my coeds in September. For the three months I spent in Rome when I was 24 years old, brash and brave, perhaps too naive to know better than to board a plane to a new country armed only with a one-way ticket and a desire to explore. For the year I lived in San Francisco and slept with two guys at the same time and pronounced daily my need to be unattached to either of them, while secretly wishing I could be with a third guy, who, predictably, didn’t want anything to do with me. For the eight months I lived at home when I was 27, on the one hand grateful for a safe space to land and on the other, my independence and self-sufficiency dwindling.
I measure these experiences and, through them, determine if that year had been a good or bad one, that valuation setting the tone for the upcoming year. I hold the year up to the microscope and, instead of looking through the lens of my present self, I examine based on the unpredictable desires of my younger self, the 17 year old who wanted to fit in during high school, who thought a certain body made her happy, who thought the love she had not been given was based solely on her lack of deserving love. The 17 year old girl who saw the world through black and white lenses, who determined right and wrong, good and bad, who saw life as nothing more than an attempt to accumulate status, boyfriends, and a success as defined by the media she consumed.
So, what about now? I feel that pull to evaluate, to cast stones at myself, because I’m not many things my 17 year old self had hoped I would become. I am not thin. I am not wealthy. I am not driving an Audi. I am not in love with the football captain. I am not living in a penthouse in Manhattan. I am not a bestselling author. I am not a famous singer. I am not successful in the ways our society has defined success.
But, I am kind. I am compassionate beyond what I ever thought was capable. I am an incredible friend. I am a loving wife. I am a vulnerable writer. I am happy. I am capable of an emotional intelligence I had never expected to have. I am helpful. I am tuned into my intuition. I am part of a connected humanity. I am trusting of a higher power. I am certain that my happiness begins and ends with me. I am self-aware. I am a great listener. I am present to my life. I am loved.
On paper, I have some incredible accomplishments to my name, things like starting a business, becoming a paid full-time writer, building an app, traveling the world by myself. But honestly, none of those things matter in even a close second to how much the above attributes matter.
Because, what my 17 year old self did not know was that your life is not a culmination of accomplishments, but rather is a culmination of feelings, emotions, and experiences. We remember heartbreak, falling in love, breakdowns, breakthroughs. Circumstances and situations, the people involved, fall by the wayside, because what’s most important is who we are, not what we are; how we lived, not what we did.
Maya Angelou said it perfectly, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
As a compassionate human, I have the opportunity to make people feel. A nice car, a nice career title, a status symbol, a Chanel handbag: none of these things make people feel anything, not really. But compassion? Kindness? Understanding? An attentive ear? These are the things people will remember long after you leave them. You will be remembered by your impact, not by your successes. Money, cars, status, can come as a result of your impact, but it is not what defines you and it is not what defines me.
So, as I look back on the past year and reminisce over my 28th year of living, I can only say with intense gratitude that it was the year that taught me what matters, what is important, where my heart is, how to love fully, and how to be the most compassionate human being I can be. And for that, I consider it a success and I happily take that into my 29th birthday, where I choose to expand in those parts of myself, to grow, to evolve, and to continue sharing that process with all of you.