A couple of weeks ago, one of the guidance counselors from my high school posted a photo of some of my classmates from when they were in seventh or eighth grade. A variety of comments followed, some adoring the cuteness, some horrified at how they looked. One comment mentioned that one person in the photo now manages a successful hedge fund. My class has never had a high school reunion, and I began to imagine what it would be like to meet my classmates again. I was specifically thinking about what I would point to as my accomplishments.
What came to mind was not the usual achievements, like career, salary, awards won and recognitions granted, my house or car or other possessions. What popped into my head was dancing. My friends. Improv. Communication. Overcoming depression. And happiness. It surprised me a little, but made sense as I reflected on why. It was not a rejection of material things or just a judgement of “what really matters.” I point to these as my greatest accomplishments because these are the things that have been hardest for me. Yes, I worked hard in school, and I work hard at my job. But the critical, logical thinking required for engineering always came naturally to me. The money, house, car, etc. have come because I live in a society that places a lot of value on the abilities I have and the work I'm able to do. It takes effort and diligence, but it doesn't feel like an extraordinary accomplishment.
Those things that came to mind as accomplishments are different. I had never thought of myself as a dancer. To me, a dancer was someone who performed on stage, doing modern dance or ballet or something like that. But last fall, while attending my third dance weekend in just over a month and reflecting on how big a part dance had played in my life for the past 17 years (dancing nearly every weekend for the past 5, and regularly before that), I suddenly realized and accepted: I'm a dancer! Back in middle school, as a shy, reserved, socially awkward, terrified-of-people child, this was unthinkable. And the realization goes well beyond dancing. For much of my life, I could barely communicate or connect with people. I didn't know how and I was usually too frightened to try, much less open up and let my voice out or let others in. But I desperately wanted to, and for years I worked at it as best I could.
The work was incredibly hard for me, and progress was slow for a very long time, sometimes stagnating, sometimes seeming to go backwards. I spent years in therapy, which sometimes helped. I pushed myself to become involved in communities, and to take on people-oriented tasks and leadership roles even though I found them uncomfortable for quite a long time. I branched out into playing different styles of music, moving beyond printed notes to feeling and personal expression. The gates blew open when I began a dedicated meditation practice. And still it was difficult to work with all the thoughts and feelings, the insights, the patterns of the mind, the sense of self and identity; and to integrate it all into a life in the world. It was far more difficult than engineering school or verifying microprocessors or examining Patent applications. And far more rewarding. Depression dropped away. Walls came down and connections with people formed and deepened. I let myself cry, and I felt love. My voice began to come out, and I could listen to the voices of others. Everything began to change.
It's still not easy. But I'm still motivated and the changes are still just as dramatic and rewarding. I began doing Improv, and worked through months of being frozen and blocked on the class' stage. I found ways to accept the anxiety that arose and act anyway, becoming able to express myself more freely than I ever have before. I expanded my dancing from Contra to include Blues, and discovered an ability to express myself and improvise physically as well as verbally. I became a dancer. Meditation continues to show me new things in every moment, gives me the ability to be present for many more of those moments, and connect in ways I couldn't have imagined and didn't used to understand. And when being present, a kind of happiness bubbles up, all on its own; a happiness that is not dependent on what is happening in the moment.
These are my greatest accomplishments. Not building a great life and a strong identity, but opening to what life has brought and letting go of identity. And no, it's not all perfect and pleasant. I get angry and anxious and upset and lonely. I long for a life partner. I often don't like my job and the situations that life hands me. I still sometimes feel undesirable and as though I don't fit in. But I can say that! I can sing it and dance it, and most importantly, feel it! I have friends I can share with and communities I love. I can move and express and communicate with others in meaningful, playful, beautiful ways. And I can be present with it all, with ever increasing insight, wisdom, compassion, understanding, and openness. I'm present for far more moments than I used to be. It's awesome in the truest sense of the word. And I am so grateful.