It had been a rough week. It was our first full week of school, my husband was traveling for work, and our son had made the big move from the early childhood center at their school to the “big” school with the rest of the elementary students. We still hadn’t fully established routine and my husband’s early Monday departure meant that I was waking up the kids and getting them into the car shortly after they were dressed and packed up to go. As a family of introverts, we were suffering from a lack of necessary downtime at home, especially since I was picking them up in the late afternoon, just in time for homework, dinner, and bed before starting all over again in the morning.
Our son was overwhelmed, exhausted, and by Tuesday morning he was refusing to get out of the car, tearfully explaining that he hated first grade because he got less time to play and it was too much work.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the schoolwork was just beginning.
That night, everything hit the fan.
The kids were fighting over who got to be Player 1 during a game of Plants vs. Zombies and I had reached the end of my patience.
“Ok guys, just turn it off.”
Our son dropped the controller and dragged himself up the stairs to his bedroom. “She can play alone. I’m going to go upstairs and be sad. About my life.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. My happy little boy, who we had redshirted in pre-k because we were concerned about readiness for kindergarten, was apparently drowning in first grade. I was trying to hold it together on my own and our daughter just could not understand why her brother couldn’t handle this new transition. She had loved first grade; her brother should have been enjoying it as much as she did.
It took several more weeks, conversations with his teacher (who he now adores), and a visit from his grandparents to bring up his mood. But what really picked him up and put him squarely back on the tracks was a weekend camping trip with his family and visiting grandparents. Despite the September heat and the threat of rain, a weekend of biking, hiking, and fishing at Lake Livingston State Park about an hour outside of Houston put everything into focus. As we were driving home from the weekend, my husband and I marveled about the fact that our son was a completely different kid now, back to his normal active, happy self. We commented that the whole weekend he was living his “best life.”
“Best life”: What does that even mean?
I page through my Instagram and I see people posting only the best moments or inspirational thoughts, with the rare show of vulnerability to contrast an otherwise strong presentation of sunshine and rainbows. I read the funny moments posted by friends on Facebook and then consider the conversation that I had with them just a few hours before in which they were telling me about just one more frustrating situation with spouses, children, parents, or coworkers. I think about my high school students who spend their days with smiles plastered on their faces while I know that their insides are a churning mess as they think about homework, grades, and the future.
In every aspect of our lives, we are expected to “fake it till we make it,” often to our detriment. We’re expected to “do it all” because that is how we prove that our life is great and has meaning. We tell ourselves and our kids that we need to pursue the “best life.” Usually that is defined by the idea that we need to have the best and be the best at everything. If we can’t achieve that then we are not living the best life we can possibly live.
Then there is the backlash to that concept, the idea that it is ok to just want a mediocre life. But we are created for more than mediocrity. We are created to be the best that we can be so that we can complete the work that God created us for. The problem is that the world defines “best” as being fulfilled by the pursuit of money, fame, and material possessions. However, I believe that God created us each for a different purpose, not one better than the other, but different.
What if I believe that living my best life means to live in-between the world’s definition of mediocrity and greatness? What if I believe that greatness can be achieved without fame and fortune? What if I believe that greatness is defined by the impact I have on the people around me? I want to change the world because I want to do what I can to make the world a better place for my own children and for my students. That doesn’t mean that I’m taking off for another country or running for elected office. But it does mean that I fully intend to use all of the gifts that God has given me to make a difference in my own little universe while influencing those I come in contact with to do the same.
As a culture our spiritual, mental, and physical health are in danger of being destroyed by our misguided definition of “best life,” but what if we change that? What if, instead of focusing doing everything and being the best at everything, we focused on doing our best? What if we checked in with our significant others, children, and friends to ensure that they are focused on living their best life, not the life that others want to create for them? Living my best life doesn’t mean doing everything all the time, it means being satisfied with what I am doing at that moment in my life.
We’ve been very careful to point out to our own kids that “winning” and “perfection” are not what makes their life good. Their life is good when they are doing what they love and doing their best at it. As they get older, we will continue to emphasize that a big part of “a life well-lived” is using their gifts to serve God by serving people.
As our son made his transition to first grade, he wasn’t sad about his life, he just needed time to deal with all the changes he was facing and find his happy place. That September camping trip returned necessary balance to our son’s life. While we don’t all need to go camping to live our best life (although I highly recommend it), we do need to find what brings us satisfaction and contentment instead of constantly pursuing what others tell us we need to be happy.
In the end, I want my friends and family to be able to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I want to have fulfilled the life that God called me to by using the gifts and opportunities He has given to me. Regardless of what that looks like, I believe that is the true pursuit of our “best life.”
Now I just need to live it.