“I’ll be remembered for my red beet jam and quilting….”
How sad, I thought. How sad that Odis, a woman days away from death, felt that her legacy would be defined by making jam and quilts. What a waste.
Then it struck me what an idiot I had been in that moment to have such thoughts. I’d been reading Alain de Botton’s article On Final Things, in which he uses a warm, heartbreaking project by photographer Andrew George to highlight the importance of self-reflection, the value of the life, and the preciousness of now.
Of course, many of us won’t spend much time, if at all, truly reflecting on the value of the life we have. We’re too busy. Busy trying to make more money, busy trying to “be someone”, busy trying to make a difference in some way that, we hope, will leave a bigger legacy than we’ll likely achieve. We’re so busy, in fact, that life, for us, seems eternal.
Other people fall ill, other people die. Not us, not the busy people who are conditioned to consume and to cultivate a success story which other people can be proud of.
I thought I had avoided falling into that trap. Outward success? Status? Money? No, not me. I’m a Buddhist. Detached from all that nonsense. Real success in life is all about … blah, blah, blah.
Odis, it turns out, wasn’t just awesome at making jam and quilts – she left behind a valuable lesson which, for many of us in our world of scarcity and competition, is fragile and easy to miss.
I believe it was Honest Abe who once said: “I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep on doing so until the end.” Maybe, of all the good qualities Odis possessed, making jam and crafting quilts was what she did best, and maybe it brought happiness and joy to her and those around her. Maybe she made the best red beet jam anyone could hope to find anywhere, and maybe her quilts were as intricate as the Sistine Chapel and comfier than the fluffiest cloud in the sky.
Or maybe they were OK. Perhaps the jams and quilts Odis made for others will be remembered not so much for their quality but for the fact that, through her offerings, she consciously and often took the time to give.
She thought of others, she was a generous woman – people will, for a while, remember her with fondness because she gave to them what she could offer, and for that they smile whenever she’s brought to mind, because they are grateful to her. Odis made a difference. She was a special woman.
And here’s where we reach the bit about me being an idiot. I’ve spent so long delving into subjects such as leadership, success, and greatness that I’m occasionally seduced into believing that success is something that comes from outside ourselves, according to the expectations of others. Follow your dreams, we’re told. Be special. You can be anything you dare to be. Fulfil your potential – the sky’s the limit. Be the change you want to see in the world. And on it goes.
What is it about life that makes us so scared to be anything other than ordinary, when being ordinary is just about the most beautiful thing we can hope to be? Why are we so obsessed with reaching for new heights, earning more money, and striving like poor Sisyphus to achieve the kinds of goals which, in the end, can never be as satisfying as we’d originally anticipated? What’s the point of living a life geared towards impressing others, if it leaves us feeling unfulfilled?
Some people will achieve “greatness” in the way greatness is understood through the quotes of Nelson Mandela, the achievements of Steve Jobs, and the inspiration of Mother Teresa. But most of us won’t – and yet, contrary to what we’re led to believe, it’s not only OK to be ordinary, it’s quite a fine thing to be ordinary, to be yourself, in the best way you know how to be yourself.
Let others chase “greatness”. If that’s their ambition, great , wish them well in their journey. But if you’re the kind of person who prefers to live a life of quiet dedication to whatever keeps you going, take a leaf out of Odis’s book and live your life as well as you can live it, on your own terms, free from the expectations of others.
The successful life is one in which the person living it is comfortable in their own skin and appreciates what they have. Nothing more, nothing less. Odis won’t be remembered for inspiring the kind of change that influenced the world. She won’t have her face on T-shirts; very few people, if any, will aspire to be like Odis. But she lived as well as she could, and she kept on doing so until the end. And she also taught an occasional idiot a very valuable lesson.
Sandy Clarke has been a keen practitioner of meditation and contemplation for the past 16 years, and believes that the better we understand ourselves and our emotions, the more likely we are to cultivate a positive outlook and sense of contentment.