My parents always told me a story about how each generation is supposed to do “better” than the last generation, and make life “better” for the next generation. This “progress” is why we work so hard, struggle, and sacrifice.
My great-grandmother mentions this “progress” every time she sees my children. Yet it seems so elusive to me. What is the progress I’m supposed to be working for? Where is the “better” life?
I look to my mother, the eldest of eleven children, who emigrated from Barbados when she was just 22 years old. She came to this country alone, with one suitcase, in search of “a better life.” She was recruited for a “teaching job,” a euphemism for nanny in this case, but she was making progress as she saw it because she could send money home to help her family.
My father got his visa two years later and came to join her in this land of opportunity. And they made the most of it. They put themselves through college, landed good corporate jobs, bought a home on Long Island, put their two kids through college, and are now retired at the young age of 52. The American Dream, I guess.
Yet all this “progress” has its downsides. My mother arguably has too much time and too much information available to her. She has an unhealthy kind of personal relationship with her doctor, whom she visits at least monthly thanks to her HMO. She sacrifices sleep and a ton of her newfound leisure time researching symptoms on the internet to the point where she thinks she has a terminal illness every time she sneezes. She tells me that she can’t go back to Barbados because the health care system won’t be able to support her when she reaches “old age.”
Then I look at her parents. They came from Barbados to help my mother balance raising her children and her pursuit of progress. And now they are stuck in their own hunt. They refuse to retire because they want to buy a car that they’ll be too old to drive. This is not my picture of what life should be like in my 70’s.
When I think about life and what I’d like my own progression to look like, I think of my Great-Grandmother, who is 94 years old, and has never left Barbados. She still tends to animals, grows her own vegetables, and does all of her laundry by hand in a small village surrounded by family.
She raised nine children and worked full-time as a cook at a sugar plantation, while her husband went as far as America to find work when times got hard. She goes to her doctor each year as she’s supposed to; but tells me that the key to long life is to be ever mindful that we are blessed and to continue to “praise the Lord.”
She is the most complete person I have ever seen.
Some may look at her simple life and say that her “ignorance is bliss.” But that’s the kind of bliss that I wish I had. She doesn’t miss the material things that we seek today, because she’s never had it and has no use for it. She can find joy in the sunrise and sunset that I take for granted everyday.
I question why I would trade her lifestyle for mine. I am a mother of two beautiful and healthy boys, married to an HBS grad, about to graduate from the best business school in the world. Some would say that my future is bright; but I know that if I continue at this pace, there’s a heart attack in store for me. My family eats french fries or mac & cheese at most meals; my house is a mess – and I’ve even gone so far on occasion as to buy new clothes instead of doing laundry. Is this the better life?
How do we define progress? Is it longer life expectancy? Is it equal opportunity? Is it education? Money? What about happiness, good health, or a solid sense of belonging?
My mother left a beautiful island, all of her family, and simple, yet joyful living in order to make “progress.” There is nothing that she needed that she couldn’t find there. But her ambition and sense that there was more to be had in this world sent her to a far-away land, on a quest that has brought her full-circle to a new quest for the same simple life she once left behind.
And here I stand, with all my predecessors’ fruits of “progress” embodied in me, willing to give it all back for a chance to reclaim what inspired them to search for those fruits in the first place.