“Securing Success” by Mark Harris – September 24, 2006
“Securing Success” – Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – September 24, 2006
Opening Words – from Emily Dickinson
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple host
Who took the flag to-day
Can tell the definition,
So clear, of victory,
As he, defeated, dying,
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Break, agonized and clear.
What do we mean by success? I hear the term a lot these days as part of school vernacular. We want your child to achieve success. I have never quite understood what they mean. I expect many of us understood it as good grades, acceptance at a good school, and then a career that leads to recognition by peers and financial reward. We usually imagine that all the children in a Unitarian Universalist Sunday School will be smart, good looking, high achieving wonders, mirrors of Garrison Kellior’s ideal. This summer in the conference I led on Unitarian Universalists and Class, I heard from many of my participants that it was difficult to be part of a UU congregation and be perceived as or feel like a failure. Do the highly educated, economically secure majority make you feel alone and miserable if you do not meet these exacting standards of success? Do you feel safe enough and affirmed enough to share your pain with others if you fail, or if your child fails? Well, we hope so, but it is difficult when achieving success in life is fraught with such competition and the drive for economic success. The genesis for this sermon began with a conversation with Andrea around MCAS scores. We heard that our town was not achieving like the other towns around us, and the comparison seemed to be how we fared in the context of their high scoring achievement, and not in terms of a bar for everyone that might indicate success, or even that there might be different kinds of measures of success.
The local professional baseball team measures its degree of success based on whether they make the playoffs or not. This year they are failures, made more so by the success of the early months contrasted with their dive into oblivion. We often think that spending money on all the best players will result in success. Yet the seemingly perfect roster does not necessarily produce a winner on the field. There is a good baseball metaphor for this in the context of the conditions under which we play the game. The average person might think the ideal day for a ball game is one of those beautiful sunny, blue skies days, where there is not a cloud in the sky. Yet for a ball player a cloudless blue sky can be a disaster for trying to catch a ball. This is not due to the sun in your eyes, but rather that a ball gets lost more easily in that perfect sky. There is no depth, no contrast. The sky metaphor extends to painting exhibits as well. Last week I spoke of Americans trying to achieve artistic success in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their worked was judged by juries in order to be exhibited at shows. The worst fate was to be rejected outright, but nearly as bad was to have your painted “skyed” in a show. That is to say that the work of art is hung so high on the wall that no one can see it. So hanging high or a cloudless day can be signs of failure in the worlds of baseball and art.
The cloudless day as the surest way to miss a high fly ball echoes the theme of Emily Dickinson’s opening words. Success or the longing for success is sweeter for those who never seem to succeed or are never allowed to. Think of how it was for the first women preachers who were told time and again – you do not belong in the pulpit, you do not have the voice, you do not have the intelligence. Those who have all the privileges expect to be given more, and that helps build up their expectations and confidence that to those who have more will be given, and to those who have not – no education, wrong sex, wrong color, or a school child, with no parent who speaks up for them; all will fail. But we often help those who have the loudest voice, or the constant presence, not those who do not have the advocates or resources. Of course it was Jesus who observed this unfortunate tendency of society, and became an advocate for those who society shunned as less than conventional successes.
Yes, Jesus was saying those who have more will get more, but there is a flip side to this that is embodied in the cloudless blue sky. If you are so perfect and lovely, you are going to drop the ball. George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “there are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” This tends to temper our desires to have more and be more than our neighbors. In fact we understand life and its trials, and often learn more from it through our failures than our successes. In a recent Globe column Donald Murray wrote, that too often in school we give the impression that life should be a series of successes, as if we were all monkeys always swinging easily from tree to tree, when in life we often fall and have to find a way to get up the tree again.” Murray writes that it served him better in school to forget the past and start anew. Critically he said that in a new school he was able to work on the task at hand building on the strengths he had within rather than the weaknesses others saw in him. Too often those weakness become the stigmata we feel we carry around – troublemaker, talks too much, can’t spell. Every student wants to make it up the tree, but we often fail to discover what will help them begin to climb, or give them the help they need. I recently heard that 85% of the students in our middle school need remedial reading help. Maybe this is a little late to be offering reading assistance to those who need it. Why do administrators continue to refuse to teach phonics? Here is an instance where seeing and admitting a failure might help system administrators move on to teach in a new and different and perhaps more successful way. We learn from our failures, but first we must recognize them. Igor Stravinsky understood this when he wrote, “I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions not my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge.
People are not going to learn anything if they operate under the assumption that they already know it all. Sometimes student ministers (this will sound like a warning to Mark) assume that they know everything about ministry because they have vast experience as lay leaders. So they operate in a church like I have nothing to teach them, and are just jumping through the hoops in order to be certified. They may find that their wisdom from their particular lay setting has no relation to a different situation where they are the minister of the congregation rather than an active member. Student ministers would be better off failing than making a situation into something it is not. What if we failed to correct Mark last week after he tried to sit us down following the first hymn?. Now he could have beat himself up, but more important he learned how we do it, and next time, God willing, he will do it the right way. We hope. But he will learn more about leading worship, preaching, teaching and ministry in general if he learns from his mistakes, and we give him some honest feedback rather than just tell him how wonderful he is. Once in a while that might be good. But you will ruin him if you do it all the time.
One of the problems with the pressure to succeed in our world is that the fear of failure can lead to severe emotional distress. This fear of performing, that was discussed in the article on Stage fright, is powerful among those of us who do public speaking for a living. When I was a student I was plagued by dreams of terrible things occurring during the services I conducted – words that made no sense juxtaposed with flying objects and incessant offerings. No, I am not talking about a typical First Parish worship service. I was scared to go before those people – What if I sounded and looked stupid? What if my clothes fell off? What if they laughed at me? I was exposed, as the article says, to my own personal terror and shame. This is a trial and a challenge to any public performer. We may feel like we are being judged or evaluated constantly, and could always be shouted down for the things we say or do. In his fear, one of my predecessors in Palmer used to vomit before every service. I hope that relieved his anxiety. Sometimes we preachers may feel like saying, I’ll show them how talented or smart I am. I find the famous actor Laurence Olivier’s response enlightening. Before every show, he stood behind the curtain muttering at the audience, “you bastards.” Perhaps he sought the courage to say you will not get to me with your criticism of my failings. But he was also gearing up his inner strength to show them all of his great talent. I will show you.
We might ask what makes for success in preaching? Unlike the stage, preaching is dependent upon a relationship built upon time and trust. Usually a minister and congregation know one another, often over a period of some years. This is different than proving your talent to an audience. Young actors will learn from their mistakes, but this is usually in many apprentice appearances. Here there is an element of trust that if you make a mistake it will be all right. You will be forgiven. Often this trusts allows a preacher to say something that he/she might not otherwise for fear of condemnation. Obviously we must use some discretion, but there is also a level of support that exists. So why the fright or worse, the vomiting? There is still that pressure to perform, that drive for success that makes us anxious. We all wonder , will I be good enough? Will they continue to accept me, to respond to me? And so even if stage fright gets better over time, the exposure of all these ideas and feelings to a group is anxiety producing. It helps to see certain smiling faces out there who encourage simply by their presence.
Ultimately, we must face the challenge. Each of us goes through this in whatever test or job demand is before us. There is pressure on each of us in this situation. The pressure to be a success in our chosen field or in a given job, or even on a certain Sunday will often make us crazy literally. My best friend in seminary decided to leave the ministry because he felt he could not be good enough on Sunday morning week after week after week. The pressure to produce a sermon was too much. He had the fright before he even got to the stage. He worked for Target Corporation for 25 years in personnel. Now he works for the UUA, and is back in fellowship as a minister, BUT, as an administrator he does not have to preach each week.
When it comes to reflecting upon securing success, I think first of my father. He came from a family that had been successful in business at one time, but then was wiped out by the depression. That failure led to further problems, because the worse things became, the more his father drank. My father was determined to make a success of himself, and give his family all the benefits of that economic boon. But the pressure he put on himself, and the effort he made eventually led to some kind of emotional breakdown, although the details are shrouded in family mystery. From the period between 1946 and 1966 he worked constantly courting customers and driving trucks. By the time I was 15 years old, what had been a constant struggle to keep the business above water became a booming success. This success was so evident that he was able to spend less time literally working, and more time enjoying those things in life that he loved – gardening, tennis and fishing. We used to laugh that he was semiretired in his later working years. All he did was go on a Saturday collection route, and pick up the money that was owed him.
Somehow he was able to feel secure enough in himself that he did not have to continually drive himself to further successes. He no longer had to work, at least in the self-evident way of constant labor that had been true before. Who knows what kind of business contacts he was cultivating? This reminds me of the jokes people sometimes make about ministers. What an easy job. You only have to work an hour a week. This view emphasizes the most public part of the job and ignores everything else. It is hard to tell what work is sometimes. It often feels like everything I see and do and read is sermon fodder. So even if you come into the office, and I seem to be staring off into space, I am not loafing, but contemplating the cares of all of you and the world. Yet we have often had a hard time not working in this country. Benjamin Franklin gave us the archetype of the workaholic, and we know from statistics that that kind of obsession with work is worse than ever. We have disdain for the image of the idler in America, which argues that the highest calling is to do as little as possible. Yet most of us feel immense guilt if we are sitting around. Few of us can be the slacker like Melville’s famous character Bartleby the Scrivener, a copyist in a law office, who when he is invited to get to work says, “I would prefer not to.” Few of us are able to define success as doing the least possible.
This past June our former intern minister found himself disappointed with some of his colleagues that he met at General Assembly. The reason was that rather than getting to know each other, or finding ways to discuss support or collegiality in ministry, he said the ministers he met were obsessed with numbers and size, women as well as men. This gets at the heart of our understanding of success. We fear we have not achieved success unless we are bigger and better than the next person. I can then put you down for not being my equal. While size may impress some people, it certainly does not equate necessarily with quality of relationships.
Henry David Thoreau is an interesting example of one of our forebears who struggled with vocation. How did he define success? Prior to being a writer, he was a pencil maker, the family business, and then a teacher. He had innovative ideas about teaching that eventually led to his demise. He was fired because he refused to practice corporal punishment. As a teacher, he certainly did not define his success ratio by how well his students scored on some test. Thoreau had the crazy idea of making education a pleasant thing for both the teacher and the student. He believed a teacher would be most helpful to the student, if they were learning together, that there might be some kind of relationship where they were fellow students together. Teaching could stand some of this enthusiasm and relationship with students.
Like the critics of his own day, I am afraid most of us would not accept Thoreau’s idea of success. After one of his lectures, a reviewer commented, “It is rather curious to see a gentleman of cultivated intellect retiring from the world, dividing his time betwixt literary labors and cooking, hunting and fishing.” The world couldn’t stand that success for him, especially in the wake of his “experiment” at Walden Pond. This became a deep exploration of the world and all its knowledge and mysteries. He wrote, “The fact is, Man need not live by the sweat of his brow—unless he sweats easier than I do—he needs so little.” Living the simple life became Thoreau’s success. While few of us might want to emulate him, and give up our comforts, we still feel the urge to move our life ever so slightly in the direction of our dreams of finding success in what we love and in simpler living, as my father did with his garden and his fishing. He discovered, I think that he had enough of the world’s success, enough struggle, and then needed to find pleasure, find joy in what he loved. He was lucky. Few of us feel as though we can stop working.
Yet I have found that success for me is carving out time for those things I love – teaching and discovering historical paths. I am lucky enough to make them part of my job. What is true about this is that the greatest love is in working with others, and seeing them get excited about what I get excited about. The problem with our usual understanding of securing success is that it centers upon putting someone else down or getting what fills my needs or my children’s needs, and ignores the needs of others and of systems. We won’t be able to help our children find true success if we only project our definition of it upon them. Success must be not a measure of comparison, but a measure of the depth of relationship by listening and observing rather than demanding they fit our definition of success, like girls I have known who did not fit the parental prescription for beauty. When I was young my father used to retell the story of Alexander the Great, who conquered the world, and then wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. When you measure success by size and conquering others, then it is difficult to admit failure, as we see with our President, and when we only seek to be better than all the rest, as the commercial says, you end up weeping because there is only success, but no meaning to it, except more success.
This is why when we think about teaching our children to achieve success in the world, it is more than the test or the grade. You see this in the lovely film “Akeelah and the Bee” when Akeelah purposefully misspells a words in order to maintain the relationship rather than beat the opponent. What do you sacrifice in the path to success? I know for myself I find success mostly not with the size of my church, but rather with when people are pleased with what I do, or what we accomplish together, but it has taken me a long time to realize this. Does someone recognize my work as good? My colleague at First Church Boston made me feel affirmed this week, not by saying how much larger and more important his church is than mine, but by telling me he wished I wrote more for public consumption, because everything I write is good. He made me feel like what I do is successful. What is success for children? Often we get caught up in fighting to give them everything they need, but we lose track of the larger picture of nurturing emotional and spiritual needs. How do they respond to others, rather than how do they dominate or be better than others?
Levi had a birthday party on Friday with some friends of his from Watertown. One of these enterprising young boys had a lawn mowing business, and had bought his own weed whacker. I think I am going to hire him for First Parish. He had brought his own money to the party, and purchased his own game room tokens. At the end of the party he had many tokens left. We talked about saving them or giving them to other kids at the party, but he said, no, I just want to give them to somebody, and so he just went up to a stranger in the game room, and handed him a cup of tokens. It was moving to see his indiscriminate kindness. I think with our drive for success, sometimes we forget that success can be measured in whether our kids are nice and not mean, whether they are giving, and not selfish, whether they listen to others. Success is found in the quality of our relationships. Thoreau realized this when he emulated native culture that there is a cycle to gift giving. The fish we take from the river is not merely consumed, but we give back to the river, or to others what we have been given, and we continue the cycle. In our drive for success we have often failed to keep a cycle of giving going. It is simple to just take, but real success is founded when we teach our children that you don’t just take what you can get for your own success or edification, but rather that what you take is a gift from someone or from nature, and it is up to you, to have real success, to give it back, and keep the spirit alive of gratitude, of relationship, of continuity, and of blessings for a life that has been given by those who came before.
Closing Words – from Henry David Thoreau
I have learned this at least by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.