What’s the Point of It All? Focusing on Enrichment Rather than “Progress”

GrowthI’ll be the first to admit, I am a personal growth junkie. Some people collect postage stamps or vintage cars or tea cups — I collect self-help books! For me, the point of life has always been centered around growth, progress, and becoming. I am not talking strictly about professional development (although that’s probably why I love being both an entrepreneur and a musician… I can always improve my business, and I can always play my violin more beautifully) – I am also intensely challenged and energized by pursuing my own internal progress. How can I learn to be more organized? Kinder? Less fearful? More peaceful? Closer to my spiritual center? Over time, the concept of progress as the main point of life became an undisputed truth to me. And I must admit, this continual striving for progress has given me the will to overcome a fair amount of adversity and persist through many dark times.

But lately I’ve been re-evaluating — because a truth isn’t really true unless it applies to everyone. So as a person with a disability who is acutely aware of the suffering in the world, I began to wonder if there was a way to re-frame the concept of “progress” so that the paradigm applies to everyone. After all, every single life matters!

I believe I’ve come up with a life goal that is more inclusive and compassionate than progress: this objective is best described as ENRICHMENT. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, enrichment is the act of making something “rich or richer, especially by the addition or increase of some desirable quality, attribute, or ingredient” (in our context, you could also add desirable experiences to this definition). Instead of just looking at measurements, benchmarks, and forward momentum, the concept of enrichment allows for the individual to pursue desirable experiences or traits simply because they make living a richer experience… Not necessarily because the experience advances the person professionally or takes them to new heights spiritually.

Personal_Development_300Defining Enrichment: Both Active and Passive

Enrichment can be classified as both active and passive. Furthering your education, working towards a desired career goal, seeking counseling to overcome trauma, making healthy choices, connecting with your spirit, developing positive friendships, serving others out of compassion — these are all forms of active enrichment. You are in the driver’s seat. You are taking ownership of your life by pursuing activities that will increase your sense of well-being. Most of you reading this have some capacity to actively enrich your life — even if it’s simply reading blog posts that make you think.

Sometimes, however, enrichment is a more passive experience. After all, there are times when people truly don’t have the wherewithal, in that moment, to take actions that will enrich their lives. I am talking about people who are experiencing serious illness, those with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, babies, people living in extreme poverty, people who are dying. In these situations, enrichment can still be present — only this time it is administered to a person by others, with compassion and a sense of hope. It looks like this: having someone provide dignified physical care, quality nourishment, pleasant and stimulating experiences, comfort, or even simply the giving of one’s presence.

My Grandfather’s death last October made a huge impression on me. He was in hospice for 6 days — the last several days it was unclear whether or not he was even aware of his surroundings. Nevertheless, so many people came to be present with him in his last days. I played my violin, people prayed over him, family members sang his favorite hymns, we all held his hand; he was not alone for one moment in the hospital — relatives even kept a watch over him throughout the night. In other words, everyone did what they could to make his death more comfortable and peaceful. Even though the outcome was inevitably going to be the same, I would like to think that his passing was a richer experience because he was not alone and the people who cared about him were showing him love.

Everyone Can Appreciate a More Enriching Life

It is my belief that passive enrichment can be appreciated by anyone – even if their cognitive state is far from what we perceive as “normal”. According to a 2014 study on patients with Alzheimer’s disease, even if patients quickly forget a visit or other event, the emotions tied to the experience seem to linger. Edmarie Guzman-Velez, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Iowa, said “Our findings should empower caregivers by showing them that their actions toward patients really do matter,” she added. “Frequent visits and social interactions, exercise, music, dance, jokes and serving patients their favorite foods are all simple things that can have a lasting emotional impact on a patient’s quality of life and subjective well-being.”

Another example that illustrates the importance of passive enrichment comes from the story of Martin Pistorius, a man who fell into a coma where he remained unresponsive 12 years. Physicians said he would die, but his family proceeded to care for him and take him to a day program. Even though it appeared to others that he was not in tune to his surroundings, Martin actually began to wake up about two years into his coma. Once he was awake, Martin was aware of everything that was happening around him, although he wasn’t able to communicate this fact. In his book, “Ghost Boy: My Escape From A Life Locked Inside My Own Body“, Martin tells what he remembers from those 12 years, including how it felt to have everyone think that he couldn’t hear them or that he didn’t know what was going on. Today, Martin is able to talk again. He uses a computer to speak and is mobile with a wheelchair. His awareness has fully returned.

Obviously not everyone makes this kind of miraculous recovery, but it is very possible that everyone — no matter their condition — has a pretty good idea of their surroundings and can appreciate things like a full belly and comfortable clothes, or being spoken to with kindness and respect. The story of Martin Pistorius certainly challenges the assumptions we make about consciousness and self-awareness. To me, it is a great reminder that enrichment matters for everyone because — almost certainly — everyone can appreciate enrichment.

enrichment-programsBringing More to the Table than the Bare Minimum

Another key element of enrichment is that it always involves bringing more to the table than the bare minimum, out of a sense of compassion for self and others. If we’re talking about active enrichment, it means that you are always on the lookout for the actions or thoughts which will enhance your life. It’s not about maintaining the bare minimum standards to survive – you have self-compassion and know that you deserve to do things that enrich your life. Even though at first glance this may seem a lot like the concept of progress, the key difference is that enrichment is not really goal-oriented. You don’t have to obsess about “the next career move” (or the future in general) if that’s not your thing. Enrichment says that you are enough, right now… But what can you do to help yourself to truly enjoy the view from this very spot?

In terms of passive enrichment, we can and should always bring others more than the bare minimum when we are caring for them. I’m not talking about working 80 hours/week to “save the world”… I mean that we can always approach our tasks with a sense of compassion and purpose – because the person you are serving is not very different from you. Each of us, at some point, could easily find ourselves in a place where we benefit from passive enrichment.

So if you provide some type of care to someone who cannot otherwise care for themselves, I urge you to do it out of compassion, with the hope that your care can enrich this one person’s very unique and important life. In doing so, you are most certainly improving your corner of the world.

It should go without saying that compassion is not the same as pity. Pity is looking at a person  from a place of perceived power and feeling sorry for them. Compassion is realizing that we all want the same things. The care you provide is, deep down, the care that you also desire – to be fed, to be clean, to be safe, to experience the world, to be loved, to not be alone. Your care is in fact empowering someone else to experience the world in a more enriching manner. To me, there is nothing more hopeful and positive than this thought.

Moving Forward with a New Sense of Purpose

Once I had this monumental shift in thought – from progress to enrichment – I began to feel a lot lighter. There’s not as much comparison or pressure if your life isn’t built around some sort of imaginary end goal. There is freedom to take the time to care for yourself, to stop and smell the roses, to really be present with the people you love. There’s the exciting realization that you have the opportunity to offer others enrichment every day — by seasoning all your human interactions with compassion and care. So I guess Emerson was correct when he penned, “Life is a journey, not a destination”… a journey that can be enriched every day you are alive.


Author: violinscratches

Gaelynn Lea is a musician and public speaker from Duluth, MN. She is passionate about disability advocacy, personal growth, and authentic living. She was the winner of NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest in March 2016.