In a world that seems to be more challenging, frenetic, superficial, disconnected, and even frightening, is vivre pour autrui the answer? For me, yes, I think it is but more on that later.
When I was young and would ask my mother what she wanted for her birthday she would always respond with: “Peace of mind.” I bet you’ve heard it too. This used to frustrate me no end; as a young girl I had no idea what that was or how to get it for my mum.
“Mum, what is peace of mind and why do you want it?” I would ask. She would smile and say one day you will understand the value of peace of mind and you will want it too.
Like most, my 20s found me exploring who I was, building relationships and finessing the beginnings of a career. In my 30s, I seemed to come into my own, relishing my life, relationships, marriage and work with a real confidence and zest for life. Peace of mind ironically was the last thing on my mind.
Then one day, when I was about to turn 40-something, I heard myself saying those very words. My husband asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I said, “Peace of mind.”
Where on earth did that come from!
What does Happiness Actually Look Like?
It’s funny, you think that you have it until that moment when you realise that you really don’t have it at all.
Like so many of you out there, I thought that I was in a pretty good place. I had reached the apex of my career, my marriage had well and truly passed the 7–year itch stage (without too much scratching), I had a lovely home, travelled the globe, had a wonderful circle of friends, and was comfortable in my own skin, not worried by the world’s opinion of me. Personally, and professionally, I was successful – or so it seemed.
But despite having achieved everything that I had set out to do it still wasn’t enough. I felt empty, there was something missing; my mind was not at peace, I was not genuinely happy.
When reflecting, it seemed that I had just been on autopilot; blindly navigating my way through life, oblivious as to where it was heading or whether it was the right life for me. Conscientiously and deliberately following the societal ‘norms’ to which we are indoctrinated from a young age.
Finish school, choose a vocation, get married, buy a house, have two children, get a dog, excel in your career, be a great wife, a wonderful mother and so on. Apparently, this was what success and happiness looked like.
Interestingly, all external or self-centred notions. There was nothing in there about living a life filled with purpose, compassion, generosity and gratitude. Nothing about feeding your heart and soul as well as your bank balance.
There had to be more, but what? Here I was a lost, confused, unhappy ‘successful’ woman who had opened her Mary Poppins bag of tricks and found it empty. First world problems I know.
Journey of Self-Discovery
Tired of getting up in the morning, going through the motions and putting on my ‘face’ (you know the one: the vivacious, strong, happy, everything is fantastic, I love my life, successful face) I decided to make a change. A huge, terrifying change. I decided to take a 12-month career break. A hush falls over the crowd.
To start my journey of self-discovery I was convinced that I needed to be undistracted by the rigours of my omnipresent, lifelong career and responsibilities.
My ever-supportive husband sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do in my year off. And whilst I had absolutely no idea, I randomly listed four things.
Travel the world, become a writer (yeah right…or should I say yeah, write — not something I had done before), if needed, supplement my income with some freelance consultancy work and something more strategic in a philanthropic sense.
At the time, I told no-one else of this ‘wishlist’ as I wanted no external pressure or expectations. I just wanted to set off on a journey into the unknown and see where it led me.
And set off I did. I wandered out into the world spending months travelling the globe alone; Central America, South America, North America, Scandinavia, Europe and Asia. This was the first tick on my wish-list.
It was in the jungles of Costa Rica that I finally started to get some clarity and see things a little more clearly, this despite my glasses fogging up from the humidity. And that clarity came from just spending some silent time with me.
My world was such a noisy, distracting place to be so I needed a time out from all the outer and inner chatter. Not talking for days on end was a very powerful curative. For an outgoing chatterbox like myself it was challenging but in the end, so worth it.
Try it if you can, it is incredibly cathartic.
A New Chapter
By now I had three ticks on my wishlist, I had travelled, my articles had been published, my freelance consultancy was helping to pay some bills, and then the breakthrough came, an answer to my search (even though I didn’t know it at the time); the fourth tick on my wishlist.
The CEO of a Not for Profit organisation, a woman whom I didn’t know reached out and asked me whether I would consider applying to join their Board. Whilst I considered myself a philanthropist of sorts and I donated to all manner of causes, I never felt that I was doing enough. I wanted to do something more strategic, and here it was! So after much soul searching and self-doubt, I joined the Board of WIRE (Women’s Information Referral Exchange).
And thus, began a new chapter in my life, a renewed passion and with it, a deeper commitment to vivre pour autrui.
I didn’t write the following passages (the Dalai Lama did), but I came across them during my soul-searching and dogged pursuit of ‘peace of mind’ and it resonated deeply with me:
…since we desire the true happiness that is brought about by only a calm mind… such peace of mind is brought about by only a compassionate attitude… It is the ultimate source of success in life.
To Live for Others
So what is vivre pour autrui? It simply means to ‘live for others.’ It is from this phrase that the word altruism comes. And for those of you that thought that it meant ‘peace of mind’, well in a way, for me, it does.
Helping others has brought me such happiness, peace, and fulfilment and an unquenchable desire to not only demonstrate altruism but to cultivate it, promote it and hopefully inspire others to vivre pour autrui.
My gap year ended, and I re-entered the real world and I was okay with that at the time because I had already found something much greater than financial security and vocational excellence. I had found a purpose, a passion, a creative outlet. I had found my lifelong calling. I had found the elusive peace of mind.
Creating a better world one act of kindness at a time. Living life with compassion, love and gratitude. That’s now my definition of success.
Sadly, my mother passed away a few years ago so I cannot tell her that she was right all along. I get it now mum.
I didn’t write this article to simply wax lyrical about my journey. I wrote it because I hoped that it might resonate with the many women out there who might be a little lost or confused or about to embark upon a similar pilgrimage. If you can find the courage, fortitude and freedom to go and find yourself then I wish you every success and I’m here if you need me. To support you, encourage you, inspire you, empower you. To listen, share, laugh or even to cry with you.
And no, my trek through self-discovery wasn’t all happiness and light, it was (and is) at times tough, heartrending, exhausting and scary, but above all, it was worth it.
So, whilst our journey and definition of what brings peace of mind and success will differ, if my story and the answers that I found, inspires and helps other women in their quest then that’s what vivre pour autrui is all about.