“There is one thing that we all must do. If we do everything else but that one thing, we will be lost. And if we do nothing else but that one thing, we will have lived a glorious life.”
In my life, having been an extrovert for most of it, I’ve been privileged to meet and befriend literally thousands of people. In some cases only passing – a few months or years at most. In others, friendships which span many years or even decades.
In that time I’ve listened to hundreds upon hundreds of life stories. The slightly distressing thing is that most of them have been, to some extent or another, sad. Some have been downright horrific.
This has been okay for me because my own life story – which still remains to be told in full – is also pretty horrific. Not just my childhood (which was bad enough) but what I’ve gone through over the last ten years. I made a conscious decision to do two things way back in Easter 1986 (yes, as specific as that – long story and not for these pages, or at least not yet). They were:
- To regain my childhood which was torn from me and keep it for the rest of my life, encouraging others to find and keep their inner child too;
- To be there for anyone who needed a friend, someone to listen to them when they just needed someone who would understand and not judge.
In these two ways I hoped to make this world just a little bit better, nicer and more loving than it was before I came into it.
And that has been it. My sole ambitions in life. I have never sought money, fame, luxuries even though I would be perfectly fine with any. I haven’t longed for adulation, respect or to be desired. If anything, I just want people to leave me alone in the sense of not finding fault or issue with me. Alas, that remains a pipe dream; in my experience sometimes there’s just one thing that people can’t stand and that’s someone who is happy and content in life with no need to bring a person down or bitch about them – they just want to ‘wipe that smug little grin’ off your face…
But my focus on this essay is that which Rumi talks of in the quote above. Almost everyone I’ve talked to deeply about their lives have been seeking…something. Maybe just inner peace, or a love life, or a purpose for being. Some have wanted to be married and have kids, others that career and respect they always felt was missing. A few want fortune and fame (not many, I’m glad to say) and others live for their children or grandchildren and that is the focus of their world. Some want their marriages to be better, others want to feel worthwhile. Most of these longings I’ve felt myself at some stage in my life so I can sympathise.
Right now I can only think of one person I’ve met in my entire life who has been entirely content in their own life and not been reaching out and longing for more. People always want something else and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, many of the greatest and most important inventions and developments have come out of someone feeling there was more that could be done. I wish I’d known more genuinely happy people but on the other hand I’ve learned that the world is a pretty mean place and those that pretend it isn’t are guilty of allowing suffering to go on by their inaction. I’d rather do at least something to try and halt, reverse or undo the damage.
But here’s the question which is increasingly unsettling me: what happens when you’ve achieved Rumi’s vision but you’ve still got a long life ahead?
For me it’s quite serious. I’ve done what I’ve set out to do in life – all of it really, certain of the stuff which matters.
My two driving ambitions mentioned above I fulfilled in being a teacher for 24 years – most of it in the classroom though my first and latter years have been with private teaching. It was a real pleasure and joy to see so many go through my classes and come out as adults. Even the last and youngest I taught in the UK are now in their twenties. It is frightening to think that some of my very first students are well into their thirties now. They are married, have kids, some are teachers themselves now – what a wonderful legacy! Many have forgotten me – that’s as it should be – but I’ve been humbled by how many still refer to me as a great influence in their lives and countless ones keep me as their friend many, many years after I last saw them as teacher and student. I don’t think anyone would say “I would not be here if it wasn’t for you” and nor did I ever crave such dependence from another, but I know that I have made lives better and that was really all I ever wanted to do.
As for personal ambitions? Well I always knew I needed to be married – I like sex too much if I can be blunt! I also knew I needed to be a father – I like having people around to share my ‘inner child’ and most adults just don’t get it to be honest. I wanted to succeed as a musician – I’ve done that. I wanted to be a successful classroom teacher – done that too. I moved into a writing career, something I had always dreamed of, and have been making a success of that for many years now. Indeed, I don’t think it likely I’ll do any other job now as my main work, though what kind of writing I do will no doubt adapt and evolve over time. I also had the dream of learning to play the sitar since studying Indian music at university long ago. I’m not especially good at it, but I ticked that one off while living in Bangladesh.
So what’s left?
I’m 45 and, God willing, I could have another 45 years to go. Bar accident or medical calamity I should at least see out another 30. What to do? It’s not that I’ve stopped – I’m still teaching, writing, playing, enjoying life, listening to others and trying to be as good a friend as I can – but I see nothing on the horizon which grabs me. I’ve served my purpose. My own two kids are all but grown up and it will be a while (I hope!) before grandchildren make an appearance, so what do I do other than what I’m already doing?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining. I love that I could die tomorrow (perhaps run over by that bus we Brits are always worried will get us the next day?) and be fulfilled. There’ll be no ‘Rosebud’ moment for me on my deathbed. I don’t crave fame or recognition with my books and writings (nice though that would be, of course). I’m content with all I’ve done and all I am doing. The unwritten books can remain unwritten if needs be. the written ones can remain unpublished. The published can remain unloved. They are just words.
But I can’t help but think I’m just marking time. Waiting for the last remaining hairs to turn white and then fall out; for more of the body to start complaining and slowly give up; for the eyesight to get worse and the teeth to crumble. I’ll do it happily I guess but I do wonder if half the fun in life was that longing to fulfil a purpose not yet achieved and that Rumi, in fact, was wrong.