Survive or Thrive – a sibling’s wisdom

I owe the inspiration for this post to my wonderful brother, with whom I had a remarkable conversation last week over afternoon tea (what better way, I ask?). I started thinking about some of the things he said, and what they meant in wider application. The words gained more momentum and power until I felt like saying ‘eureka!’: I am adopting them as a philosophy for life. So here it is: this is my ‘eureka’ statement…

We can live life in either one of two ways: we either survive, or thrive. Survival is just getting through something: showing your face and doing the bare minimum to be able to say ‘I’ve done it’. I know I’ve done it at work; I often do it when I’ve been nagged to do something, I do it when I find something really dull but necessary; I have done it in relationships of all kinds – just treading water with people so that they just about stay in my life. These areas where you’re surviving have a low pulse, and there is little ‘heart’ there. My brother described it as living in the shadows, and I could see it immediately. We both had plenty of examples where we had or have been doing this: I know I am currently doing this with my well being, for example, and it doesn’t always feel miserable – I’m eating lots of junky, sugary food, and it’s quite tasty – but it does feel like it’s going nowhere. Survival is doing just what you need to do, and your actions take you nowhere because you’re not trying to get anywhere. You’re just trying to stay afloat.

Thriving is living with purpose and, most importantly, joy. We both understood the difference between areas of life where we had survived, and where we lived with joy. I would not have been able to make this comparison so easily a year ago, because I was living in survival: it is only when I left my corporate job and embarked on a new career and a new way of life that I know what it is to thrive. When you have joy in your life, you bring your whole self to whatever you’re doing, and you’re reaching for something; in joy, you are in a state of creation. And it’s contagious: when you are thriving in one part of your life, it spreads and touches other parts of your life. It’s like light. When you have the audacity to do an ‘act of thriving’, you lift yourself up to a new place, and the rest of your life somehow wants to catch up and meet it. Thriving is real living. 

You may have been surviving for so long that you don’t even realise you’re surviving. When I thought about it, I saw that I’m surviving some of the most important areas of my life right now. If it goes unchecked for long enough, survival becomes your default behaviour; it can become so entrenched that an exploratory act of thriving is seen as wasteful and self-serving, eliciting the (perhaps internal) complaint, ‘how can you do this when we have so many more important things to do?’ I can see how faith can also support a life of survival: it becomes something you turn to to help get through the morass that is life; it may not even get the chance to spread its light throughout your life because you snuff it out. And so with guilt, resentment and self-limitation, we tie ourselves into a circle of misery.

How do we go from surviving to thriving? It’s simple: we choose it. Happiness, joy, is not a destination or a situation: it’s a way of being. It’s how we look at the world, and therefore it’s something we can be responsible for. We choose whether we see the world as resignation or opportunity, burden or freedom. Until now, you may have been choosing to survive because you’ve seen life as something that has to be born, carried like a heavy weight. If you accept that you’re always free to choose, choose joy, just like you might choose to be angry or frustrated or resigned or carefree or bored or excited. Choose happiness, and bring that to all of your life, including your pleasures, duties and responsibilities. 

My brother described it as as moving a few steps across from the shadows where you might always have been standing, and suddenly you’re standing in sunlight, and in it everything looks beautiful. Nothing has changed: your surroundings are still the same, your situation is still the same; it’s just your perspective that has shifted. And everything that seemed dark before is now illuminated. Everything that seemed dull and unbearable is now bathed in light. Where there seemed to be a wall there was now space and opportunity. I listened to his experience of choosing joy, thriving, and with it life, and I thought – of course. It is simple. If you have something planned and it doesn’t work out, you could either be bummed out and miserable, or you could choose to see that as an opportunity to do something else with that time. Circumstances never come with a label telling you how you’re meant to respond to them, but we often assume that there is a reaction that is handed to us, and we just accept it. In reality, we are so much more powerful and responsible than that, but sometimes we don’t want to take on what we can do with our freedom to choose, because that opens the door to possibility, and that is scary. It also means we have nothing else to blame, and we become truly answerable for ourselves (that’s what it’s like when we have the power we do). 

But what really lit me up was this: choosing joy is not about pleasure-seeking, but about how I see everything in my life, including my responsibilities. There is lots to do to create the life I want, and I can choose to see my actions as a series of really dull and draining tasks, or I can choose to see them with joy, because that’s what they will create in my life. When I see something as an act of survival – ‘I need to do this to not get told off’, ‘I need to do the laundry otherwise I have no clothes to wear’ etc – then it is a miserable thing to do, and I will just be scraping through it – painfully and without fulfilment. But if I choose to thrive in it, then it becomes a fulfilling act. I can either see my responsibilities as a burden or as acts of liberation which allow me to be free in my life. I can either do it in the shadow or in the sun…

When you’re surviving, you will often look for a way out of the trap you feel you’re in, and that escape of the promised land lies over there somewhere: you might even try and find it in external pleasures, like endless wandering (like me), shopping (like me), emotional eating (like me), and so on.

When you’re thriving, you create the promised land around you, because it comes from within you: it is how you see your world.

If I chose to thrive in those important areas of my life, what would that joy look like? It’s being out and feeling the sun on my skin; it’s not feeling guilty for reaching out for something with no guaranteed outcome, or just for the sake of enjoying that experience; it’s making time to write; AND…it’s fulfilling my responsibilities with joy, so that it creates space for happiness and calm in my life and for my family. 

It’s no coincidence that since my brother chose to take a few steps along and stand in the sun – to choose happiness as a state of being – miracles have happened in his life. Real, everyday miracles. Happiness invites love, peace and well being, I can’t help but think.

So…I choose to thrive, not survive. I choose joy, not misery. I choose my responsibilities as acts of freedom, not burdens.

With that, I’m taking on a two-week, turbo charged ‘thrive drive’ where I tackle some of the areas where I have been surviving: this includes my writing, home life, well being, and career planning. I’m declaring it here so I hold myself to account!

Image source credit: Roy Decarava

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