Four weeks ago, with tears in my eyes, I proudly watched my twenty-one year old daughter Kendra walk across the stage in Chaifetz Arena at St. Louis University to receive her college diploma. As she embarks on a career in Social Work, as a mother I feel obligated to share with her what defines a successful life.
I began putting together my “mother’s wisdom” talk to share with her. But then, exactly one week after Kendra’s graduation, my twenty-three year old son Brandon died unexpectedly. Suddenly, I realized, I needed to rethink my personal definition of a successful life.
It has nothing to do with the fact that you drive a BMW or a used Ford Taurus. Whether you live on the west side or the east side of Bloomington has no impact. Do you wear a suit and tie to work or do you wear an orange jumpsuit? It doesn’t matter.
As I greeted people for 5 plus hours in the visitation line, it became abundantly clear to me that my son had lived a very successful life in the way too short span of time he walked this earth. I heard story after story about how kind he was to others, how when he flashed that beautiful smile in someone’s direction they just immediately felt happier and that they mattered, how he often paid a stranger’s way onto the city bus or babysat a single mom’s children so she could go to work.
What is a successful life? It is one in which you make a positive difference in the life of at least one person. A successful life is a life lived by treating other people in ways that build them up not tearing them down, choosing to be kind even though it takes additional effort, looking for the worth and value within other human beings no matter how deeply it is hidden and gently letting them know that you see their worth and value even if no one else does.
People will forget what you did for a living, where you lived, what your favorite ice cream was. But they will never, ever forget how being in your presence made them feel.
So to my graduate Kendra, as you go through this life, remember that each person you meet has had thousands of people cross their path. Be that one person, that when their life intersects with yours, their life is changed for the better in some way, whether big or small. Then, my darling daughter, you will be living a successful life.