Medium 9781626560956

Your Life Isn't for You

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Give Your Life to Live Your Life

In this book, Seth Adam Smith expands on the philosophy behind his extraordinarily popular blog post “Marriage Isn't for You”—which received over 30 million hits and has been translated into over twenty languages—and shares how living for others can enrich every aspect of your life, just as it has his. With a mix of humor, candor, and compassion, he reveals how, years before his marriage, his self-obsession led to a downward spiral of addiction and depression, culminating in a suicide attempt at the age of twenty. Reflecting on the love and support he experienced in the aftermath, as well as on the lessons he learned from a difficult missionary stint in Russia, his time as a youth leader in the Arizona desert, his marriage, and even a story his father read to him as a child, he shares his deep conviction that the only way you can find your life is to give it away to others. Your Life Isn't For You was recently named the Gold Medalist for Inspirational Memoir in the 2015 Living Now Book Awards!

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10 Chapters

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1 The Selfish Giant


In one degree or another we all struggle with
selfishness. Since it is so common, why worry
about selfishness anyway? Because selfishness
is really self-destruction in slow motion.


I was born with a frighteningly large head.

Seriously. It scared the nurse.

Not long after my grand entrance, she measured my head and whispered, “No, that can’t be right.”

She measured it again. “It’s not possible.”

She measured it a third time and then looked up at the doctor. “Do you realize that this boy has the biggest head I have ever measured?”3

It was a symbol of things to come. From ill-conceived notions in my six-year-old brain about my ability to create and control a bonfire behind my house to fanciful ideas that made me think I could befriend particularly aggressive wildlife,4 my big, egotistical head was always getting me into disastrous trouble.

Yes, my giant head was always getting me into trouble. But luckily, my family was always there to bail me out.


2 Winter within the Wall


To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your
heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.
If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must
give your heart to no one … The only place outside of
Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the
dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.


I hated being a Mormon missionary.

Hated it.

It was 2005. I was nineteen years old, and I was serving as a missionary in far eastern Russia, near the city of Vladivostok. To say that my father was shocked would be a bit of an under-statement. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine that his own son would one day be living as a missionary in Russia.

Now, some of you might scratch your heads at this contradiction. Wait, didn’t Seth tell us that he’s an introvert? Doesn’t being a missionary demand that you interact with people?

Why yes, yes it does. But despite the image of smiling, singing missionaries in the musical The Book of Mormon, not all of us are as happy-go-lucky about serving a mission.


3 A Melted Heart


The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle
of the seasons does not deny the struggle or the joy,
the loss or the gain, the darkness or the light,
but encourages us to embrace it all—and to find
in all of it opportunities for growth.


One morning, the Selfish Giant woke up to music so sweet that “he thought it must be the King’s musicians passing by.” In reality, it was the singing of a little bird in his garden—a sound that signified the coming of spring, and one he had not heard for many years. He ran to his window and “saw a most wonderful sight.”

The children had discovered a hole in the wall and had crawled back into the garden. And, as if by magic, anything that the children touched burst into life. “The birds were flying about and twittering with delight, and the flowers were looking up through the green grass and laughing.”

Seeing this, the Giant’s heart melted and he cried out, “How selfish I have been!” Although the Giant had built what he had imagined to be an impenetrable wall, the children had found a way to come back. The stony wall around his heart was eventually penetrated by the love and humanity of others.


4 Look Out the Window


How much larger your life would be if your self
could become smaller in it…. You would break
out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your
own little plot is always being played, and you
would find yourself under a freer sky.


Looking out the window of his home, the Giant saw a little boy who was unable to climb a tree and join his friends.

The little boy’s eyes were full of tears. At the sight of this, “the Giant’s heart melted” and he “crept downstairs and opened the front door quite softly and went out into his garden.”

The Giant was able to abandon his solitary confinement because he had seen the suffering of another. He looked out the window of his lonely world and saw a world beyond himself.

The first step toward liberation is as easy as looking out the window of your own life. See how others might be suffering, and then open the door to go out and help them. My sister Shannon gave me a key that helped me open my door—actually, she gave me a keychain.


5 Lift Another


Within every child is a seed of greatness.


After the Giant opened the door to his solitary confinement, he went to the little boy who could not climb the tree. The Giant “stole up behind him and took him gently in his hand, and put him up into the tree.”

I think it’s significant that the Giant was able to lift the boy in his hand. In a literal way, the Giant lifted another person—but in reaching out and helping someone else, he symbolically lifted himself in the process.

A story is told of a wise man who could interpret the messages of the wind and hear the thoughts of men. He traveled from kingdom to kingdom, dazzling the villagers with his knowledge and freely sharing his knowledge with the people. One day, the traveler came to the kingdom of a very prideful king. Jealous of the traveler’s fame, the king ordered his guards to arrest the traveler and bring him to his court so that the king could question him in front of all the people.


6 Knock Down the Wall


One can choose to go back toward
safety or forward toward growth.
Growth must be chosen again and again;
fear must be overcome again and again.


After the Giant had shown the children that he was no longer a selfish Giant, he turned to them and declared, “It is your garden now, little children.” He then took his great ax and knocked down the wall.

Each of us has built walls of one form or another. They may be fiercely defensive walls built out of anger and hatred, or they may simply be precautionary walls built out of fear and pain.

Some walls may be justifiable defenses, built to keep you from hurting yourself or being hurt by another. But often, these walls keep out more life than originally intended.

I was made aware of this fact when I was contacted by a Russian girl named Galena, a native of Nakhodka whom I had known while living there.

Galena had moved to the United States to study English and pursue her education. Perpetually peaceful, warm, and serene, Galena is like a living embodiment of the harbor in which she was raised. Friendly as she was, Galena contacted me a number of times, wanting to know how I was doing and maybe hang out. Still embittered by my past experiences, I did my best to wall Galena out of my life. I just didn’t want anything to do with Russia.


7 The Heart of Russia


There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a
mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these
are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.
But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with,
marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors
or everlasting splendors.


When the heart of the Selfish Giant changed, he saw the children no longer as trespassers but as his garden’s most beautiful “flowers.” The more we grow to love people, the more we understand that our lives are the most beautiful when they are filled with people.

Not long after my conversation with Dmitry, I went for an evening walk on Red Square, the center of Moscow. I vividly recall that walk. It has since become one of my favorite memories.

I was meeting up with a friend of mine: Vladimir, a man I had served with on my mission in Nakhodka. To this day, it baffles me how in my zeal to hate my mission I had almost completely forgotten about Vladimir.


8 A Light in the Wilderness


Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness
will we discover the infinite power of our light.


I now come to the part in The Selfish Giant that made my dad so emotional. It was the moment when the Giant discovered the element that had transformed the garden of his life: light.

For all my talk about our lives being comparable to a garden, I would miss the mark if I didn’t write about the ultimate role that the sun—or light—has in transforming our lives.

In his short story, Oscar Wilde personified light as the little boy who helped the Selfish Giant decide to tear down his wall. One winter morning, many years after he had torn down the wall, the Giant looked out his window and saw “a marvelous sight. In the farthest corner of the garden was a tree quite covered with lovely white blossoms. Its branches were all golden, and silver fruit hung down from them, and underneath it stood the little boy he had loved.”


9 The Resurrected Russian


[T]hou have been benighted till now, wintered and
frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed,
smothered and stupefied till now, now God yet comes
to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, … but as
the sun at noon, to illustrate all shadows.


“And when the children ran in that afternoon, they found the Giant lying dead under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.”

The Giant dies? thought six-year-old me. How awful! What kind of a story is this? But although it seemed morbid to me at the time, Oscar Wilde was using the Giant’s death to hint at a much greater life. The fact that the children find his body covered with the white blossoms of spring is symbolic of the life he had given to others.

Not far from Red Square is the statue of a giant among men—a man whom I call “the resurrected Russian.” The story of his life began in the nineteenth century, at the height of imperial Russia. During his twenties, he lived in the city of St. Petersburg and was, by the standards of his day, a man of promising talent. To the casual onlooker, this aristocratic and highly educated young man had it all and more to spare.


10 The Legend of the Northern Lights


When we love someone, our love becomes demonstrable
or real only through our exertion…. Love is not
effortless. To the contrary, love is effortful.


I wrote the following story not long before my wife and I got engaged. I wrote it in the attempt to crystallize everything I had learned since coming home from Russia. This story, though written by me, doesn’t feel like something of my own creation. If anything, it feels like the product of all my experiences with other people. It is a story that has inspired me to follow the light, defy the downward pull of my own selfish nature, and conquer my own mountains.

I share it with you in the hope that it will help you as you try to move forward. It is called “The Legend of the Northern Lights.”

It is said that not long after their creation, the salmon lost their way. Aimlessly, they swam in the rivers and waters of Alaska. But in their wanderings, they found neither home nor rest.



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