What makes a life fulfilling?

As a college student, my life is as full as the amount of sleep I got the previous night. Maybe I work these extended hours in hopes that my life might one day be easier. Maybe somewhere along the line I equated the easy life with the full life. But all I know is right now I feel emptier than I would like.

When I picture my ideal future, the image lacks place or occupation. I do not see myself programming or building houses or making music. The picture is more a feeling: more vivid and deeper than what I experience currently. My ideal future is completely unknown except for the hope that my life with be saturated in deep emotional ties to the work I do, the people I know, and my God who knows me.

These were the ideas I had about life as I flew to Ecuador this summer, sent by Duke University to work for David Krupa at the Range of Motion Project. I was excited about the work I was sent there to do, but more than that, I was extremely curious to see how occupation factored into the equation of a fulfilling life. I was there, in part, to run an anecdotal experiment.

Brief Aside
There is a general understanding among Duke students. It could be a product of East Coast culture mixed up with the elitism of high performing academics. The understanding is this: the goal of all this work is money, prestige, and comfortable living. A less extreme version is: I have to do something cool with my life or I won’t be happy. I went into the summer comparing everything I experienced with this understanding. The goal was to see if there is any truth in these claims. I will refer to this claim as the Duke Understanding.

Theoretically, David Krupa should have an extremely full life. He does work he loves helping people in need, he has great relationships with his patients, and is a miracle worker to those who can’t afford prosthetics. The life of Dave is perfect in a sense. He has a beautiful family, lives in a beautiful home, and goes to work everyday with a clear and valuable purpose. If the Duke Understanding is the source of life’s happiness, then Dave should be the happiest guy I have ever met.

Summary of Activities
Nick (a fellow Duke student) and I worked with a prosthetist, Robinson, helping create prosthetics and orthotics, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays every week. This was under the close supervision of Dave and Diana Svea. Tuesdays and Thursdays, we worked in a little office 3D printing and building robotic hands, and I worked to create a dressing device for a bilateral arm amputee. We were immersed in the ROMP family, and explored the country with Diana, Dave, Greg (Dave’s brother), and Patrick Mathay. I met many patients, interacted with many inspiring amputees, and made deeper relationships than I ever expected.

I traveled to Ecuador with many questions on my heart, and I returned with many answers. To conclude the little experiment, Dave does not have a full life because of his really cool job. The patients I worked with are not fulfilled because they are lawyers and accountants. Dave’s life is full because he creates a community of people that can draw close to each other in their pain and restoration. Dave is happy because of his rich relationships the community around him. His patients are full of life because an adopted family of dedicated workers surrounds them and know exactly how to care for them. The Duke Understanding is a surface level observation that does not hold water. It is easy to see a joyful person with a really cool profession and think, “If I had that job I would be that happy”. In reality, the joyful person makes their job meaningful, interesting, and significant.

My time in Ecuador taught me this: I do not know what I want to do with the rest of my life, but I am getting a very clear picture of who I want to become.

I am so incredibly grateful for the ROMP family that came around me and invited me into the fold. While they weren’t obligated, each person I met was so excited to share some of their wisdom with me. The things I will remember about my trip are Dave’s jokes on the mountain, and Greg’s discussions of politics (that went right over my head), and Pat’s advice on being cool and well dressed. Thanks to Diana for putting up with me and teaching me how to deal with the real world of solving problems. Lastly thanks to Robinson, Alice, Carlos, Carla, Nico, Karl, and Santiago for teaching me, keeping me safe, and pushing me to my limits.