“I am striving to fail,” said no one, ever. Seriously, who do you know that dreams of failing at her career, his relationships or at whatever aspirations cause one to wake up each day? No matter who you are, where in life you find yourself or what role you play in others’ lives (husband, mother, manager, employee, etc.), you strive to succeed at living.
But, what is success? What is the goal, the ultimate reward that we’re laboring toward in everything we do?
In our capitalistic, materialistic, narcissistic world – is it okay to admit that I, and probably you, are self-centered? Success is often associated with three motivators. The first is simple, profit. Money, wealth, bank account size, assets; these are the measuring sticks of a successful person. To have more is to ascend. And life is all about progressing upward. If you are not progressing, your worth is in decline.
The second push has a less self-righteous stigma attached: relevance – the maintaining of popularity, exposure or influence. Are you or your cause relevant to the times? Or are you a thing of the past, overlooked and drowned out? When you lose relevance, you lose purpose, you lose what keeps you in the forefront of attention, so consequently, you are forgotten, relegated to the bottom of the media feed. If you are not relevant, you never really matter.
Our final impulse to succeed is birthed from a drive to achieve longevity – admittedly a less common motivator to those closer to the front-end of life’s journey, yet one that eventually drives each of us. Longevity is about preservation and promotion, not letting go of what you have. Success is measured not merely in the amount of material and relevance, but in how long you can hold on to them. Long-term success is the “true” measurement of a life lived well. You are what you keep.
Do you notice a theme in our driving motivations? Self…worth, purpose, identity. The consistent theme of how most of us measure success is an affection for “self”. There is nothing wrong with loving yourself. Contrary to some religious admonition, the greatest command is to “love our neighbors, as we love ourselves”. Self-hatred has no place in God’s design.
Yet, if success is determined primarily in relation to “self” (what it does for or gives “self”), then do the very ambitions that give shape to how we live and how we enjoy life actually kill that part of us which allows us to live abundantly: our souls? Whether we achieve success or failure to, when self is the end-all, then we are actually removed from what brings truth, goodness and beauty to life: relationship to others, including God.
Consider with this understanding of success there is only one way to act, and that is the way that promotes and protects “self”. Such actions frame people as means-to-an-end or obstacles to overcome keeping them at a distance, reducing relationships to economics.
Or, consider that self-oriented success creates an anxiousness that is unsettling. Success as described places tremendous pressure on a person, for the bottom line is about as stable as a floating rug on the open sea, and relevance is about as easy to hold on to as a puff of smoke. With such moving targets, the very things that provide affirming foundations in life and work—our values—will inevitably face moments of compromise and end up tearing at our very being. Our interior relationship unraveled.
Or, think of it this way, most of us would argue that if you work hard for yourself, sacrifice for yourself, you can achieve success. But what if you fail? What if your hard work, long hours, dedication, creativity and sacrifice do not culminate in possessions, popularity or prosperity over time? What are you left with? Who are you left with?
Is there another standard by which to measure a good life? Could we aspire to something other than success, or at least re-frame the measurements of success that don’t have us succeeding to our own death? I think so. And I think the measurement is not an ideal but a person: Jesus.
Before you scream at how stereotypically religious my statement is and tune out, for just a quick moment, consider the life of Jesus that compelled a man to seek Him for the answer to eternal life, life with “staying power”. A man who appeared to recognize the futility of success (Mark 10:17-22). He was, after all: young – all of life in front of him, wealthy – already achieving what most long for, and with authority – having more control over his life than many.
Would Jesus’ life measure up to our assumptions of success? He was poor, without a home (Matt. 8:20). He was rejected by family, followers, the religious and the worldly alike (Jn.6:22-70), and his ministry lasted only three short years. He had neither possessions nor position, relevance nor longevity. And yet, he not only changed the world but enjoyed life in doing so.
So what was Jesus about? It seems, as you read the adventures of this storytelling, miracle-working peasant who traveled the dusty roads of Palestine with a uniquely diverse band of friends along with the intrigued and skeptical alike, that he was all about flourishing through relationships. Jesus recognized that the very essence of humanity was relational. How we relate to the earth, to one another and the One who breathes into all life. These relationships will determine if our life is one of joy and abundance or something less.
Jesus was neither naïve nor sentimental. He experienced all the relational pangs of human existence: the desire for wealth that caused some to hoard and others to take, the desire for relevance that drove some to live without conviction and others to manipulate, the desire for longevity that produced fear in some and close-mindedness in others. And still, Jesus sought out a life of intimacy with the Father who loved him, a life of interdependence with the Spirit who filled him, and life shared side-by-side with friends and neighbors, for their good as well as his own.
Our faith history calls this life of flourishing intimacy, faithfulness. A life that is lived in awareness of the God who moves history forward with each rising sun. A life that is lived in partnership with the Spirit that is at work in and around us. A life lived with a relational responsibility that compels us to care about the fullness of life in those whom we engage in our home, at our work and across the street.
Such a life, like the life of Jesus, may see little success as many of us have been trained to consider it, for such a life often leads to generous sacrifice, irrelevant simplicity and often going backward. Yet, it will be a life that is in all that God is and is doing. A faithful life, a full life, a success.
 Eugene Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: a conversation on the ways of God, 242.
Image via Brunel Johnson