Carol A. Hand
I was 28 when one of my commune colleagues asked me this question, forty years ago, and the only honest answer I could think of at the time was “Nothing.” The response felt true at the time, although in retrospect, I know I only thought about “accomplishment” on a superficial level as that which was seen as noteworthy from a socially constructed frame of reference. I had years of college education but no degrees because I kept switching focus – from chemistry and biology to literature and philosophy. I loved to learn so I took classes in many disciplines just because they sounded interesting. But I didn’t have a diploma, so where was the evidence I had accomplished something?
I had worked as a volunteer in Appalachia when I was 19 and learned to relate to the Kentuckians in the hills who referred to me as “teeny bopper.” I would have stayed but there was so much more I wanted to learn and experience. I volunteered as a tutor and mentor with Black and Latino youth in Chicago and on the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin and learned to care deeply about all of the youth I met. I was honored by their friendship and kindness, but there was still more to learn so I left the protective walls of the Catholic women’s college I attended and finally ended up in Madison, Wisconsin at the time of student protests. What evidence did I take with me that I had accomplished anything during my years of volunteering? During my time In Madison? Honestly, all I had accomplished was the birth of my daughter and the end of a brief relationship with her father. My daughter was eighteen months old when we left for the commune.
What had I accomplished in my time at the commune? I certainly had a lot of new experiences. I had worked as a donut finisher – a job that left my hands raw from the chemicals in glazes and fillings. I worked as a receptionist and nurse’s aide with elders, and in a horrific institution that housed (and abused) people with disabilities. I started the community daycare center with two other mothers for many young children at the community who previously roamed about with no consistent meals or care. I even learned how to do simple plumbing in the process of putting a sink into the old building we used for the daycare center. I traveled to the south to promote the commune radio show, served as the liaison between the 200 members of the commune and its leadership, and was the booking agent and lightshow designer for a mobile disco. But what evidence did I have to show that I had accomplished anything of value in a world that only valued status, titles and material success?
In retirement, I can look back and ask the same question. The degrees I finally completed and titles I have held aren’t evidence I accomplished anything of real and lasting value. As in the past, it was the people whose lives were intertwined with mine during the journey that I remember. I remember the love, work and laughter we shared, the innocence lost and the wisdom gained.
Recently I have been purging clutter. What do I do with the evidence that some things I did made a difference, at least momentarily, in the lives of students and community members? Do I need to hang on to old heart-felt thank you cards and gifts that take up space in files, cupboards, and shelves? The copies of papers, publications, awards, gifts, and thank you notes are merely things that are not alive. Even though each evokes memories of other times for me, I doubt that my daughter will appreciate all of the clutter as her primary inheritance.
Has anything I’ve taught, written, or helped create made people’s lives better? I hope so. Is it important to cling to tangible proof that a life that has been lived doing the best one could has made a difference to anyone else? As I ask this question, I realize I already know the answer. The answer can only come from within. We write because there is a story in our heart that needs to be shared. We live our art – whatever it is – because it is our sacred responsibility to breathe love into being. Life is about the journey, not collecting and hanging on to tangible evidence in order to prove our life was meaningful to anyone else. If asked this same question today, I would quote Emerson.
And after reflection, I don’t think this is an appropriate question to ask anyone else, although I must admit it’s tempting to ask legislators and the One Percent a slightly modified version – “What have you REALLY accomplished in your life that benefits others?” Still, there are far more meaningful questions to ask about those things over which I have some control. What do I no longer need or use that might be of use to others? What can I do today and in the time remaining to bring kindness, peace, honesty, beauty, and love into the lives of others?
As Kahlil Gibran (2002) observes:
All you have shall some day be given; Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors….
See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving. For in truth it is life that gives unto life – while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness. (pp, 21-22).
Kahlil Gibran (2002). The Prophet. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf Publisher.
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