I recently came across an intriguing quote from the second century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who asked, “You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?”
The question got me thinking about what things I would consider necessary for such a life. And so, before I could overthink my answer, I grabbed a pen and jotted a list into my journal:
Spend time in nature.
Move my body.
Enjoy good food.
Do good work.
Love my people.
Pet my dog.
It’s a remarkably short and pedestrian list, which perhaps means I’m the most boring person in existence. Or, maybe it means I don’t need to do much at all to live a satisfying and reverent life.
Turns out, my criteria for living a satisfying and reverent life don’t include fame or notice, worldly success, accolades or achievement. I need not travel to exotic locales or rub shoulders with influential people. I don’t have to climb ladders, set goals or check boxes. I don’t need an impressive job title, good connections, a big salary, a fancy house or name-brand shoes.
Truthfully, everything I need for a life of satisfaction and reverence is already right here in abundance — within my own self, in my own backyard, in my own community:
Fresh air. Nourishing food. Meaningful work. Beauty. Connection. Curiosity. Love.
A few days ago Brad and I were sitting on the back patio with our son Noah, who will be a high school senior next fall. We were having a conversation about jobs and vocations, and Noah had asked my husband and me if we thought it would be possible to afford to live in a tiny house on an annual salary of around $35,000. “It might be possible,” Brad answered, “depending on what part of the country you were living in and what other expenses you had.”
“Good,” Noah declared. “That means I might be able to work part-time, or at least less than full-time, so I’ll have more time to do what I want to do.”
“What do you mean, work part-time?” I replied, aghast. “What kind of ambition is that? Your father and I certainly aren’t going to pay to send you to college so you can work part-time!”
Here’s the irony: I responded to Noah without considering the fact that I have two college degrees and have worked part-time for the last 18 years.
I also made these remarks forgetting that just a few days earlier, the criteria I’d listed for living a full life looked a lot like what Noah was imagining.
Turns out, it’s one thing to pen a quaint list into my journal. It’s another thing entirely to consider what non-traditional choices might look like in the life of my own kid. In responding to my son’s musings about what he might like his adult life to look like, I had automatically defaulted to both society’s and my own long-held definition of “success.”
Whether part-time work and a tiny house will actually be realistic options for Noah someday isn’t really the heart of the matter here. The heart of the matter, I’m beginning to understand, is that the definition of a satisfying and reverent life won’t necessarily look the same for everyone, nor will it necessarily mirror our culture’s ever-increasing “be more, do more, earn more, have more” expectations.
A few days after that back patio conversation, I thought again about the emperor’s question as I lay in the hammock, watching the clouds wisp across a sapphire sky, listening to a singsonging trio of goldfinches as they came and went at the feeder. The hammock rocked like a cradle in the spring breeze. I could feel the sun-warmed fabric beneath my bare legs. Above my head, seed pods dangled from the branches of the river birch tree like tassels on a Chinese lantern.
Do you see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?
I think I do. I think maybe, on the cusp of my 49th year, I am finally beginning to see.