The Smell of Success
By Audrey Stallsmith
As a writer, I spend a great deal of time trying to adapt my work to the whims of agents and editors. You can guess--from the fact that I haven't had any new books published in years--that my recent adapting hasn't been highly successful! Unfortunately, the next editor or agent always seems to have different whims than the previous one, which necessitates starting all over again.
Of course, if I weren't so bullheaded, I would have given up long ago. Not on the writing. I've discovered that writing is about as necessary to me as breathing. But there's no requirement that I have to submit my work for publication.
None, that is, except the hunger for success which seems to drive so many of us writers. And drives us almost to distraction.
"How to make sure that the voice we hear is the voice of the Lord?" Madeleine L'Engle asks in Walking on Water. "There are all kinds of dirty devices that get in the way, a principal one being the climate of success in which we live, the need for success with our peers, in our careers, in our bank balances. The mistake is in thinking of the journey in terms of success at all (though inevitably we do). Success," she concludes bitterly "is one of the dirtiest temptations of the devil."
L'Engle too experienced a long, dry spell in her career. She was able to persist through hers to find public acclaim. But there's one fact that I've had to face lately. Persistence won't necessarily buy me success. Or not success as the world sees it anyhow. The majority of writers, after all, never become rich and famous.
As a very private person, I suspect I wouldn't like fame anyhow--just the money that goes with it! I'm afraid that, as much as we've all seen that money doesn't buy happiness in other people's lives, we all think we will be the exception to the rule.
But we need to remember that the symbol of wealth, King Midas, was--as Chesterton points out in All Things Considered--really a failure. "His path did not lead unerringly upward. He starved because whenever he touched a biscuit or a ham sandwich it turned to gold. That was the whole point of the story. . . We must not have King Midas represented as an example of success; he was a failure of an unusually painful kind."
Wealth, in other words, taints everything it touches. Those who have it can never be sure that people love them for themselves. Success, after all, is more likely to attract envy than affection. Not to mention that peaks tend to be precipitous. Staying on top is no easy matter either--when everybody else is trying to take your place.
Helmut Thielicke, who lived in Germany during the Nazi era, warns us that "The worship of success is generally the form of idol worship which the devil cultivates most assiduously. We could observe in the first years after 1933 the almost suggestive compulsion that emanates from great successes and how, under the influence of these successes, men, even Christians, stopped asking in whose name and at what price."
We Americans have also seen many Christians leaders, following the siren call of big money, who stop asking those questions. In fact, they are often so brazen as to insist that Christians are supposed to be successful. (Obviously, they must have skipped Christ's warning about how difficult it is for a rich man to get into heaven.) Because they are measuring themselves by the world's standards rather than God's, those leaders almost inevitably end up in shame and ruin.
"The figure of the Crucified," Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics, "invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard. Such thought is a denial of eternal justice. Neither the triumph of the successful nor the bitter hatred which the successful arouse in the hearts of the unsuccessful can ultimately overcome the world."
Only Christ can do that and He was--in the world's eyes--ultimately unsuccessful. Granted, He gained a few followers for a while. But the crowd eventually turned against Him and he was executed in a most humiliating way, penniless, when He was only in His early thirties.
To the world, Christ's acceptance of this fate when he "could have called ten thousand angels" is just crazy. If the world is sane," Frederick Buchner reminds us in Listening to Your Life, "then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party. The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully--the life you save may be your own--and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love. The world says, Get, and Jesus says, Give."
The world, in other words, is all about grasping while Jesus is all about letting go. Henri Nouwen posits in Life of the Beloved that our craving for success actually springs from our own self-rejection. "Success, popularity and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of a much larger temptation of self-rejection. We have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions."
And, deep down, we tend to feel that--if we aren't doing great things for God--He must see us as a failure too. But, if we take Christ as our example, it is clear that God doesn't care about what the world calls success.
"It is perfectly obvious," Chesterton insists in All Things Considered "that in any decent occupation (such as bricklaying or writing books) there are only two ways (in any special sense) of succeeding. One is by doing very good work, the other is by cheating. . . Beyond the rules of the game it is all a question either of talent or dishonesty. . ."
Many writers probably give up what they are called to write to go after what they think will make them the most money. In the end, that "dishonesty" and lack of fulfillment will make them miserable, even if they are financially successful.
On the other hand, most of us started writing just for the love of the craft, and not for what we could gain from it. As a teenager, I hurried to finish my homework assignments in study hall, so I would have time to write. Back then, it was a form of relaxation for me. And I only had myself to please, as I seldom submitted anything.
"A man must love a thing very much," Chesterton notes in Robert Browning, "if he not only practices it without any hope of fame or money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it."
Of course, it wasn't entirely without rewards. I'd been complimented enough on my writing by teachers and families to believe that I was good at it. And a shy and socially inept adolescent tends to cling to the things that she knows she does well. Also, in my mid-thirties, I did finally have four books accepted and published. So, although none of them were bestsellers, I can't really call my career entirely unsuccessful.
Which is just as well, as a lack of success is not a virtue in itself. It could be attributable, after all, to my lazy refusal to do good work rather than to any "no" on God's part. The person who has really done his best and failed, however "must recognize that what enables him to stand before God is not his lack of success as such, not his position as a pariah, but solely the willing acceptance of the sentence passed on him by the divine love." (Bonhoeffer)
That "willing acceptance" is the tough part. But God knows what is best for each of us. Some people have the strength to deal with success and some don't. C. S. Lewis, for example, seemed to possess enough intelligence and sense of humor to take acclaim without allowing it to go to his head. Of course, his having critical colleagues and an occasionally sharp-tongued wife may have helped! I read somewhere, though, that he resolved from the beginning to give away the money he made from his books. (It's obvious in Letters to an American Lady, for example, that he is having his American publisher send the lady money. Simply because she is a fellow Christian and needs it.)
Lewis apparently made this resolve because he was aware of the corrupting effects money can have. And he didn't assume that he would be better than everybody else in that respect.
Although we think success will make people admire us more, it often--as Lewis found out with his fellow professors--makes them resent us more instead. The woman who succeeds in losing weight, for example, is often shunned by her still chubby friends. She has gone, after all, from being "one of us" to not one of us.
From things I've read here and there, I have to conclude that success can also have devastating effects on a marriage--especially if the successful partner is the wife. Unfair as it may seem to us females, the male psyche just doesn't deal well with that sort of thing.
I've reminded us of all this, not as "sour grapes," but to point out that success is not really the solver of all problems that it is cracked up to be. Besides, our attention shouldn't be on elevating ourselves, but on lifting up Christ. A. W. Tozer writes that "God may allow His servant to succeed when He has disciplined him to a point where he does not need to succeed to be happy. The man who is elated by success and is cast down by failure is still a carnal man. At best his fruit will have a worm in it."
I'm not sure that I entirely agree with Tozer on this. To be elated by success and cast down by failure is simply to be human. And anything else smacks of stoicism--what I would consider a very nonChristian philosophy.
I think Fenelon inclines a little too much towards that when he advises in The Seeking Heart, "Be happy with what you have. Wish for nothing more." As humans, we are always going to be wishing for something more. But I agree that we can't judge our success or lack thereof in the same way that the world does.
In the end, only what God thinks of us is going to count. So I agree with Fenelon that "you must learn to accept obscurity and scornful disregard while you keep your eyes solely on God." Or, as Nouwen puts it "Our preciousness, uniqueness and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in clock-time. . .but by the One who has chosen us with an everlasting love. . .the world is not the source even of its own life, let alone yours." So why whould we feel obliged to live up to its standards?
If our work is pleasing to God and furthers His kingdom, we are a success in the eternal world. Which is, after all, the only "real" world!
Lewis agrees that "It is not your business to succeed, but to do right: when you have done so, the rest lies with God."