If this is success, I'm not interested

Our culture's dominant view of achievement is criminally insufficient.


Western culture has an extremely narrow idea of success.

You're usually considered a success if:

  • You make a lot of money.
  • Others acknowledge your talent and skills (“American Idol”).
  • You have access to the high and mighty (this explains all the photos on people’s walls – “Look! It’s me standing next to Oprah!”).

I preface this next statement by saying I'm not playing politics. Heck, I’m not enthusiastic about any of the remaining candidates for president. But Donald Trump is exhibit A. Because he’s successful in business, he’s a “winner.” Those who are not are “losers.” 

Although she’s not as prolific in insulting people, the same arguments could apply to Hillary Clinton. No matter the ethical liberties she has taken over the years, Hillary seems to believe she’s America’s last and best hope.

This is a convenient definition of success. It leaves out our personal lives, the way we handle money and the way we treat friends. It does not assess our gifts to charity, our commitment as parents or grandparents or the way we treat (or mistreat) our spouses.

What matters is that you reached the top of the corporate, government, athletic or entertainment ladder. The trail of carnage behind you is an acceptable degree of collateral damage, because you had to do it to become a “winner.”

If this is true, then I want to no part of success.

Thomas Merton, a theologian and monk, wrote: 

“If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”

To that I would simply add that we should seek success, but in all areas of our lives. Not just one.

Exhibit A for true success is … my parents, Leroy and Dee Harryman. Next week they will celebrate their 52nd wedding anniversary. Mastering a task or a job takes repetition and perseverance. But we never master the art of human relationships. 

19th and 20th century journalist G.K. Chesterton addresses this point:

I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when compatibility becomes questionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.
— G.K. Chesterton

There’s no one-size-fits all manual, no re-set button or changing of batteries. Relationships requires unrelenting commitment, a willingness to be wronged (but not abused) and the humility to admit we were wrong. It means working hard to pay the bills or to find a job that pays them.

It means standing by your spouse during a struggle with depression, a fight against cancer or the agony of caring for aging and sometimes unappreciative parents. It means a commitment to resolving your conflicts no matter how long it takes.

I've seen Mom and Dad do all those things. They certainly didn’t do them perfectly. Oh yes, there were days when the sparks flew. Sometimes they felt like giving up. But they never did.

That’s love. That’s success. It isn’t the made-for-TV kind. It’s better.

It’s a “reality show” based in reality.