How do you define success?

Throughout the month of January, WordPress is sending participating bloggers a writing prompt each day. It’s a way to find some creative inspiration and perhaps make connections with other bloggers. My entries in this blogging challenge will appear here under the tag #bloganuary.

“Success” is not as easy a concept to wrap one’s thoughts around as I thought it might be when the question first came up today. Part of what complicates the idea of success is that what constitutes success is often something imposed on us from outside ourselves, such as the expectations others may have about what it means to be a good husband, or wife, or parent. Those expectations come from a lot of places–friends, family, school, church, etc., and sometime the expectation is more about a superficial, performative kind of success that makes everything seem okay when it might not really be so.

Our own expectations of success can also complicate the matter, as some of us tend to be our own worst critics, and others of us seem find little to criticize in themselves while finding plenty to criticize in others.

Different people can have vastly different experiences with success, of course, and that adds to the complexity. Imagine two seven-year-olds in elementary school, one of which is bright, precocious, and is pulled out of class once or twice a week to do special work because she has been designated as “gifted.” The other is also pulled out of school once or twice a week, but it’s because of her dyslexia, which has caused her to fall behind most of her classmates in several subjects. “Success” means one thing to the gifted child, but it may mean something very different to the learning-disabled child. And the way that other students or teachers respond to each of those two children might be different, too.

The “playing field” is rarely completely level, and most of us have experienced this. We aren’t all athletic, or attractive, or academically gifted, and we don’t all have the same resources to draw on from our families. Some of us experience systemic injustice, racism, sexism, and various other forms of prejudice. Some don’t. That’s life, unfortunately, and as a result, success, by whatever measure, can be more difficult to achieve for some than for others.

I draw a distinction between individual “successes” or accomplishments of goals, great or small, and “success,” on a much grander scale, over a longer period of time. Individual successes, such as the winning of a football game, a passing grade in physics class, getting a job, becoming an Eagle Scout, getting married, or receiving an award for a performance are examples of the former category. A successful career, financial success, a successful marriage, or a successful life are examples of the latter.

Reaching or surpassing any goal, big or small, feels pretty good, no matter who you are. I measure and monitor my small successes in a variety of more or less trivial ways, such as my daily to-do list, where I list everything I need to get done in a given day on 3×5 index card, with a little hand-drawn check box next to each item. Every time I place an “X” in one of those boxes, I revel briefly in that accomplishment. I’ve been known to add items to the list after I’ve already completed them, just so I can make another box and check it. (I know that’s silly–please don’t judge me.) If I can get to the end of the day with all of the boxes checked, I am sure to mention that to my wife, or anyone else who might be nearby.

Acknowledging my smaller, daily successes is good for my ego, and probably for my mental health, too, but the truth is that my thoughts often turn to the longer-term success category these days, as I am now much closer to the end of my life than to its beginning. These days I tend to ruminate more than ever before on finishing my life well, and on what sort of legacy of memories I will leave behind for my loved ones.

This kind of long-term, “ultimate” success is measured by several different factors–one’s worldview, for example, or one’s values, spiritual beliefs and principles, personality traits, upbringing and more. I’m a Christian (and a pastor), and my worldview and practices are informed by my religious beliefs. (This true at least some of the time.) This passage from one of the minor prophets of the Hebrew Bible is instructive with respect to the question at hand:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good,
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice and to love kindness
and to walk humbly with your God?

(Micah 6:8, NRSV)

From this I understand that God desires those who follow him to be of the sort who are just, kind, and humble. This characterizes a successful life in God’s eyes. And Jesus teaches in Matthew 22 (read it here) that there are essentially two commandments that cover everything in the writings and teachings of the law and the prophets: we are to love God and love others.

When my family and friends gather around my casket or urn to mourn and remember me, it is my sincere hope that they will remember me as one who at least tried his best to live out of a desire to act justly, to be kind and humble, to love God wholeheartedly, and to love others at least as much as I loved myself. This would be Success for me.

And I also believe that this won’t be the end. (Cue: “We Will Meet Again,” by Pierce Pettis)

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