Success… what is it? It can elude even the most gifted and ‘called’ individuals. Excellence often accompanies success, but not always. And success can be devoid of any hint of excellence. One is not necessarily required for the other.
A relative shared a concern about how I would ‘survive’ as I continue to strip my life down and leave behind the occupations and stuff that had brought me this far… I’d better ‘hurry’ to make things happen in this new world of mine or…
And I thought about the great and amazing possibilities that lie in the things left unsaid at the end of that hanging sentence. The things that await those willing to risk. Some people finish a sentence like that with doom and gloom but there are extraordinary opportunities in going into that unknown with faith and the attitude that one will be fine no matter the outcome (maybe not the world’s definition of fine, but that’s part of what we can choose to let go).
My father, Alfred, was a preacher man. Nearly all of his life he worked one or two other jobs so he could provide for the family and still do what he loved and felt called to do… be a preacher and care for people. I would ride the school bus he drove in one of these ‘extra’ jobs, before I was old enough to go to school, just to be with him. I would go to the bank he cleaned and help clean to earn a little extra money when I was older. But my favorite memories are of bringing him lunch and a water canteen to the combine or tractor he was driving as he plowed and harvested local farmers’ fields. I would ride up there in the open cabin (before all the fancy machines today) on many a scorching summer day with the engine heat and dust blowing back in my face and wait excitedly for him to give me the wheel. I would focus intensely on making nice neat rows in the dirt like it was the most important job in the world.
Although my father strived to do good in his work and his life, by the world’s standards he was anything but successful. Yet, he never failed to lift up and love the needy, the sick and the less fortunate. He gave generously of what he had and was always spoken of with kindness and respect by all. Still his little churches never grew large and he never had too much money. He made a lot of mistakes, he admitted, as a parent and as a person and some of these came at a cost to my safety as a child, leaving me with much to deal with as I grew older. I would say much of the things he felt he would have done differently were due in great part to the rigid ideas he held most of his life about faith and God, and he would tell me later his pride. But in spite of brokenness between him and me, I could see that there was something true in the core of who he was, in his life and what he believed. I was fortunate to have the kind of conversations and closeness in his later years that helped me understand and see things, and him, in glorious shades of gray rather than merely in black and white, good or bad terms. In the end, I had a much deeper understanding of what it means to live well… and die well and it began to change everything I thought I knew about ‘success.’
Success is a tricky thing to define and many of us who thought we knew what it was discover that our version of success is but a dandelion in the wind. Going after success can be a frustrating pursuit… and can prove impossible to sustain. What we can endeavor toward is to be more truly ourselves, to be more excellent in our gifts, to more honestly love and live and give what is ours to give. We may not know the fruits of our heart’s labor in our lifetime. There may be no evidence that anything we do matters or is doing any good… or is ‘successful.’ But this may not be ours to know. We must trust that our life and gifts are for a reason we may not see or understand, and the daily opportunity is to lean into this trust with all of our heart, mind and strength.
Vincent Van Gogh’s story is one that gets inside my heart. Such a heartrending story and one that inspires me so deeply because he gave all he could… he was not successful in his lifetime by the world’s standards, reportedly selling only one painting. Vincent suffered many losses and heartbreak, taking his own life in the end. Yet how exceptional his contribution to the world—in both his story and his art. People said he was insane. But who was really insane? Don McLean’s lyrics point to what may be more of the truth of Van Gogh’s life:
‘How you suffered for your sanity.
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen they’re not listening still.
Perhaps they never will.’
I am so grateful for all who live as true to their call and gifts as they can, whether it’s what they do for a living or they make a living to be able to do what they feel called to do. The musicians, writers, artists… the janitors, bus drivers, farm workers… who sacrifice more than most of us would pay to live their own life as authentically as they can, even though their journey seems anything but promising and the outcome seems anything but successful. I have been blessed immeasurably by the contributions of these people.
How poor our world would be without those who give to the world what their soul is called to give and pay what it costs to do so. How rich our souls and existence because they did.
To all the ‘Vincents and Alfreds’… thank you…
Starry, Starry Night, Don McLean