Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist
The Irony of Success
The Rev. William E. Nelson
I wonder how many of you recognize these words by Emily Dickinson, words you may have read or heard in a high school or college English class, while studying the mysterious, enigmatic “Belle of Amherst” in an American Poetry section. “Success is counted sweetest/By those who ne’er succeed.” (“Ne’re,” is one of those lyrical conjunctions used by poets of a certain era who needed to eliminate a syllable in order to maintain a flowing syntax.) These first two lines of Ms. Dickinson’s Poem #67 are a fine example of her realistic, no-holds-barred outlook on some of life’s most bittersweet ironies.
“Success is counted sweetest/By those who ne’er succeed.” What makes this particular irony so wickedly clever is that hardly any of her readers would have been exempt from the desire that was so prominent in the mid-nineteenth century culture of Emily’s time, that of attaining “success.” And life is hardly any different today, is it?
Maybe even especially in our day, success is on the agenda of just about everyone who’s starting out in life. But I’m not always sure that everyone’s who’s seeking success knows exactly what true success is. And that’s what I want us to talk about this morning: just what it is that constitutes real success, and how some successes are less real than others, both in terms of individuals and of institutions, especially that institution we call the “church.”
Let’s start with individuals. It was only a month or so ago, that many of us lost quite a bit of sleep watching the Beijing Olympics. All those athletes, each seeking success. Only a few, of course, thought it was really possible to win a medal, and in a way they were the lucky ones, because they didn’t have much to lose. Their success was just being there in the first place. That was their reward. Those in contention, meanwhile, were under tremendous pressure, knowing that a single slip, a single stroke not timed right, a single incompetent or prejudiced judge’s rating, could bring them down to what Jim McKay years ago called the “agony of defeat.” For those at the top, this is the big threat.
Which is precisely why it was so refreshing to hear Shawn Johnson, the sparkling young gymnast from Iowa who, when asked how she felt about being deprived of the gold medal everyone thought she’d win, said that – and I’m not quoting precisely here – when she came to the games her goal was to do her best, and she did. She went on, then, to say what an honor it had been to represent her country, and that not winning all the gold medals she might have won, wasn’t nearly as important as having participated in this wonderful event.
This, my friends, is what I would deem to be success at its greatest – a person who sees what is, and knows in her heart that that’s the way it is, and is still happy and content. Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, says, “Of course there is no formula for success except perhaps an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings.” I’m sure Aristotle would have nodded approvingly at this fine young woman’s attitude.
No sooner had we begun to recover from the Olympics, that those of who’d become such devoted sports followers suddenly found ourselves staying up late all over again, watching the two major political conventions. Need I say more? Here success takes on a whole new dynamic. The stakes are high. Six weeks from this coming Tuesday most of us will go to our local polling places and vote for the candidates that are vying to be elected to serve as leaders of our country, our states, our counties and municipalities. Most of the people in this room, being Unitarian Universalist types, will join other thoughtful people who have studied the issues and the candidates that support them, and vote according to how our thoughtful and informed consciences direct us.
But between now and then, we’ll be subjected to who knows how many advertisements designed to reach people at the level of people’s most fearsome vulnerabilities. And we worry about those people those people out there who will stand next to us at the polls, many under the influence of clever advertisers who’ve done everything they can – for quite a bit of money – to convince people with pretty much the same tools they use to entice people to buy laundry detergent or automobiles, to vote for the candidate that seems to respond best to our most deep-seated needs. The unwritten rule of this kind of political campaigning, I’m sorry to say, seems to be that you don’t want to risk sounding too intelligent or well-informed, for somehow that’s un-American. Rather, you just want to repeat the same phrases over and over again, playing on people’s emotions. The late Saul Bellow, in talking about the political situation in our country, once said, “The presidency is now a cross between a popularity contest and a high school debate, with an encyclopedia of clichés the first prize.”
It’s scary, isn’t it? One of the presidential candidates will succeed, at least in the conventional understanding of what success is. But will that be success? It remains to be seen. Albert Einstein, in one of his aphorisms, said, “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” We can only hope that the people running for elective office this year will be able to remember such a thought when the smoke’s cleared and the real business of governing begins.
And then, of course, there’s the whole money thing. That’s scary, too. Maybe not as scary as the election, but right up there, for both young and old and in-between. I can’t help but recall the old vaudeville joke about two fellows who were discussing the stock market. One asked the other, “Does it bother you?” To which the other responded, “Who, me? I sleep like a baby! Every two hours I wake up and cry!”
But I’m not behind this lectern this morning just to talk about athletics and politics; I’m here rather to talk about how such things reflect contribute to our own self-concepts, to our notion of whether or not we, as individuals caught up in the context of a society in distress – and what society hasn’t been, ever, throughout history – judge ourselves as to our own success, in living the lives we’ve lived. I’m behind this particular lectern to talk more specifically about how our faith, our liberal religious faith, our Unitarian Universalist faith, relates to all this. As you may suspect, I’m pretty sure it does. At least I hope it does.
Gordon W. Allport was among the most important of the 19th century’s researchers and writers in the field of psychology. One of his books, published in 1950, and to which I still refer from time to time in the process of my own musings and writings, is called The Individual and His Religion. In this book, Allport lists six attributes that tend to connote a mature religious outlook. These are:
Now that’s a lot words to unload on a group of nice people gathered on a Sunday morning in the idyllic setting of this chapel, and you’ll be relieved to know that I’m not going to unload each one of these six categories. I would like to say just a few words, though, on this last word, “heuristic.” An interesting, word, heuristic. Basically, it means taking an idea – and idea that may be a conviction but not a certainty, a hypothesis rather than an established law – and using that idea as a basis for open and honest inquiry. We may hypothesize, for example, that there is a kind of universal Truth, and to pursue that Truth through our religious life is an honorable and reasonable thing to do. Or we may feel that helping those less fortunate than ourselves is something to be deemed valuable. Or, we may find Truth in the arts, or in philosophy, or in music, or in love for one another, or in the work that each day brings us, or just in marveling at the dawn of each day, waking us sometimes gently, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes with a soft murmur, sometimes with the blast of a trumpet.
All of this, of course, is part of what it is to be human. You’ll hear me say this often, but it’s something of which each of us should be reminded from time to time: human beings are, as far as we know, the only creatures on earth who are fully aware that once they were not, and once they will be not again. Therefore it is our privilege, our opportunity, our responsibility, to live the life we’re given, as fully and joyfully as we can. Even with all its fears, conflicts, disappointments, trials, and pain, life is what we have; and if we’re to live it fully, we have to be adventurous. To do so, is to achieve success.
The contemporary writer Anna Quindlen has said, “It is possible to fail in many ways . . . while to succeed is possible only in one way.”
Success, as is being human, is not a goal, it’s not the end of something, it’s not a state in which we can hang up our battle gear and breathe a sigh of relief. Success is a process – a way of living, a way of loving, a way of seeing ourselves as we are, and going about the business of life anyway. Not only going about our business anyway, but with a smile on our faces.
How many of us have met a fellow human being who, when you’ve looked into his or her eyes, has filled you with a sense of peace? This has happened to me a couple of times. I’ve come away from these encounters truly inspired, for I knew that the lives of these folks were no less filled with difficulties than most of ours are. But somehow they kept this self-composure, this self-confidence in who they were, and shared it with every person who’d encountered them. This, I think, is success.
It has nothing to do with numbers, or money, or status, or power. It has to do with finding within ourselves the essence of our humanity. And in finding that essence, and living that essence daily, heuristically – a process that occasionally will test us – we shall come close to finding the Truth we seek.
The irony of success is that it’s not something we can catch, not something we can put in a box, not something we can own. Success is a way of life, a process; living an adventure day by day, with our eyes and hearts open to all we meet.
At each of our worship services we begin by lighting a chalice. The flame of the chalice burns throughout the service, reminding us of who we are, of why we’re gathered here. We’re gathered in response to something greater than ourselves, not something before which we bow in apprehension, but rather something in which we see ourselves in our wholeness, in our humanity. We are people in process.