What it is to succeed

To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by
a healthy child, a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed
easier because you have lived;
This is to have succeeded.

-Commonly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but derived from a poem by Bessie A. Stanley

I am fortunate to live in this country, where I am free to write whatever I want in this journal space. If I wanted to write that God is Dead (I don’t), I could do so without fear of worldly persecution. For that I am grateful.

I am fortunate to be alive during this time of prosperity. Even during times when I don’t have everything I want, I have always had everything I need, and for that I am thankful.

When I consider all of the choices and chances that led to my mere existence, I find that I am lucky to simply be alive, even if that luck is a product of His will, that doesn’t mean I oughtn’t be grateful for it.

One of the more difficult aspects of our American culture–and one we all must endure to some degree–is that our society attempts to define our success for us. Advertising, peer pressure, familial influence; magazines, television, film–they all tell us what it looks like, feels like, and costs to be “successful.” It’s the proverbial keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, but in this case the Joneses are an archetype, and a moving finish line. We’re always itching for the perfect job, for the perfect house, for the perfect wife. Our language has even invented phrases to set us in this mindset: “Reach for the stars,” or “You can do anything you set your mind to,” or “Follow your passion.” We call it the rat race, but I think it ought to be called the rat chase, because we’re all chasing after a ghost–a moving finish line that cannot be caught.

In turn, we often define our own success in binary terms. Either we have achieved our perfect, idealized version of happiness, or we have not. There is no in between. This hearkens back to last week’s entry about the NBA. We project an idealized perfection (winning a championship) on the league, and falling short of that is a complete failure. Binary. In our own lives–in our own minds–we are either a one, or a zero.

Paul writes in Romans: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). I think he’s talking about more than simply bucking the first-century trends and being openly Christian in a time where that was still new. I believe this also pertains to finding happiness and contentedness through a change in perspective and attitude. In that specific case, Paul defines it as accepting and being an agent of God’s will in our own lives. That is another great danger in letting other people define our own success. When we do that, we acquiesce to their will, and we are working for someone else’s purpose. This can blind us to what Paul says our aim should be…

That is also the point of the poem above. Success must come from within. It can be achieving a small victory, or finding something to smile about in a trying time. It can be a moment where we feel close to God, or a hug for someone we care about. If we let external, worldly forces define our own success, we are bound to failure. If, through perspective and attitude, we define our own successes, we can find it.

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