From the Dean: Success in a World with Charlottesvilles

August 18, 2017

Column by Mark Markuly, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry

Many people in the United States are flummoxed by President Donald Trump’s inability to grasp that his words about the riot in Charlottesville, VA, not only do not provide moral leadership, but actually aid and abet white nationalists.  Some think the president is a really a racist; others that he is incredibly dense when it comes to understanding how mass communication works for a position like President of the United States; and, still others suspect he is simply not ethically aware enough to understand the moral distinctions of some situations.  Personally, I think a significant element of his problem is his narrow understanding of succeeding and winning – a cultural preoccupation throughout much of the America’s history.   To “succeed” in life, according to this philosophical strain in our culture’s thinking, is to win; and to win is to stand apart from others who are best described as losers.  This way of thinking is baked it into the American worldview and it has had profound negative consequences. 

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “success” is defined as: “the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame.”  The successful person acquires money, power, and prestige, and these are markers of the ultimate “winners” among us.  President Trump has given himself over to this set of values.  Your Dictionary surveyed Trump’s speeches and has identified his 20 most commonly used words.  They list “winning” as the first example, providing common references such as the following:

  • “We (the U.S.) don't win
  • “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning.
  • Work hard, be smart and always remember, winning takes care of everything!

The opposite of the successful winner, of course, is the failing “loser” and this is another word used heavily by President Trump, according to Your Dictionary.  Some examples:

  • “Show me someone without an ego, and I'll show you a loser -- having a healthy ego, or high opinion of yourself, is a real positive in life!”
  • (on John McCain) “I supported him, he lost, he let us down. But you know, he lost, so I've never liked him as much after that, because I don't like losers...He's not a war hero...He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured.”

Winners succeed and losers fail.  It is a simple equation, customized for someone who doesn’t want to think too deeply about our wildly complex world, the depth of our human personalities, and the pluses and minuses of what we do and achieve in our lives.  It is impossible to understand a phenomenon like Charlottesville with binary thinking about human purpose, achievement and motivation.

Our national preoccupation with defining success and failure as a binary distinction divides our society into those at the top, who acquire wealth, influence, authority and devoted followers, and those on the bottom, who struggle with deficient incomes, powerlessness, and societal invisibility.  Seeing the world as winners and losers is not exclusively a U.S. phenomenon.  But, we have demonstrated a remarkable ability to accept this sheep-goats’ mentality – from the age of the robber barons in the late 1800s, to the superficiality of the late 1920s, to the tawdry consumerism of the 1980s, to the reality television era from the 1990s to the present, which has spawned win-lose shows like The Apprentice and Survivor.  Our impoverished understanding of success pollutes the values of business, politics, sports, entertainment, and even religion. 

U.S. culture has been susceptible to a simplistic definition of success for generations.  And, some prominent Americans have always expressed concern.  Mark Twain bemoaned the value system of the “gilded age” at the turn of the previous century, and joked that “to succeed in life” it seemed a person needed only two things: “ignorance and confidence.”  William James, one of the founders of modern psychology, wrote a letter to the famous science fiction writer H.G. Wells in 1906 and described this notion of success as a pathological condition.  “The moral flabbiness born of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS … (and the) squalid interpretation put on the word (known as success) is our national disease.”

Ironically, the disease did not come with the word itself.   Humans have thought about the word success in very different ways through history.  According to Word Wizard, “success” appeared in the English language in 1535, with the meaning: “what comes next.”  Originating with the Latin verb, succedere (to go under, come close after, go near), it had the neutral meaning of the “result” of an action, with the distinction between “good success” and “ill success” appearing sometime in the 1580s.  Online Etymology Dictionary places the arrival of the “success story” much later in 1902, although such Horatio Alger narratives have clearly become the source of many of the ideas and feelings we have about what constitutes success and failure.

In recent times, more of us have become sensitive to the power of win-loss ideas regarding success and the effect they have on the quality of our lives, the way we relate to one another, and our levels of happiness.  Two years ago, Strayer University conducted a national survey on Americans’ opinions about the meaning of the word, success, and found that six in ten disagree with the Merriam Webster definition of money, power and prestige.  For most of us, increasingly those of a younger age, success means “attaining personal goals, having good relationships and loving what you do for a living.” Based on the study, Strayer launched a national initiative called, Readdress Success, which included an on-line petition they hoped would persuade Merriam-Webster to change its definition of success to “happiness derived from good relationships and the attainment of personal goals.”  The dictionary has not changed its definition, but clearly more and more people are questioning what constitutes real success and failure.

If you are looking for a deeper, and more accurate understanding of the complicated terrain of human success and failure, you can find no better resource than ancient religious traditions.  Although many religions have their own version of Christianity’s “prosperity gospel,” most faith traditions realize the win-loss record of a life is something you can only measure against the backdrop of an entire lifespan, and from a transcendent perspective that eludes any of us in our earthly existence.  For many religious traditions, the ultimate measurement of success is determined in an “end-of-life” judgment by God.  Our era is far removed from traditional religious worldviews for this kind of “success meter” to have relevance for many of us.  But, this has not inhibited advocates of a world of winners and losers to use the language and imagery of the more nuanced and long-term notions of success woven into religious and spiritual worldviews.  Trump’s own books provide examples.

In Trump 101: The Way to Success, the current president has a chapter called “Join the Explorers’ Club: Learn About the Mysteries of Life.”  This sounds like something one might find in a book on spirituality or religion, suggesting that a reader ground himself or herself in an appreciation and engagement with the ultimate mystery behind our existence.  But, Trump uses “mysteries of life” as a self-help concept, rooted in something very different.  He urges the reader to: “Identify your intrinsic values – what you really want and are willing to work hard to get,” and he tells the reader that these values will provide “strength, determination, and a powerful compass.”   The longer religious and spiritual view of success is driven into the foundation of the ancient cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice, and the great theological virtues of faith, hope and love.  These are the kinds of intrinsic values that have inspired and motivated people to transform themselves and the people around them.  But, Trump is talking about meeting new people and trying new things. He also believes in the importance of courage.  “Knowledge requires patience,” Trump tells his readers, “action requires courage.  Put patience and courage together and you’ll be a winner.”  In a religious worldview, courage has nothing to do with winning, it has to do with acting justly, doing the right thing when this is costly and doing it just because it is the right thing to do.

Donald Trump also talks about the importance of tapping into “your higher self,” another term from a religious or spiritual playbook.  But, he doesn’t use the term “higher self” in a recognizable way for a theologian, a philosopher or a thoughtful spiritual seeker.  In Think Like a Champion: An Informal Education in Business and Life, President Trump speaks of the higher self as achievements that result in winning and succeeding.  “Achievers move forward at all times – they have anticipation for their next deal and have another goal immediately lined up … Achievers go for the challenge, so the next deal is what they’re thinking about … That’s living in the highest realm.”  Tapping into our higher selves, it seems, is just another chance to practice the art of the deal.

The Strayer study and the ancient understanding of a meaningful and worthwhile life contrasts starkly to Donald Trump’s notion of the successful life.  Such a contrast is even easier to see in the life of the young Charlottesville woman who was killed when a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters at the demonstrations in Charlottesville.  Based on Merriam-Webster’s narrow definition of success, Heather D. Heyer was hardly “successful.”   She did not pursue the acquisition of money, power and prestige.  At 32 years of age, she had a high school education, worked as a paralegal in a law firm in town, and showed no real signs of becoming a tough competitor on a fast track to a life as a winner.  Instead, it seems the north star of Heather’s life was compassion.  People often saw her cry when she heard about others suffering or mistreated, and her boss said in her job she walked bankruptcy clients through the pain and shame of rebooting their financial lives, a task in which she excelled.  Heather showed up at the counter-protest rally to stand up against the discrimination in white nationalist movements, which she recognized as a potentially threatening and destructive influence on our common humanity.  On some level, Heather knew that she was built for something much bigger than to “succeed” and “win” in the narrow sense of achieving money, fame and power.  If asked, perhaps she would have resonated with Booker T. Washington’s definition of success in his autobiography, Up from Slavery: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which (one) has overcome.”  

Religions have outlived all political systems and society can learn much from these ancient traditions about the meaning and earmarks of true success.  Faith traditions know that if you are recognized as successful by others that is great; however, if you are doing the right thing and no one notices, or they even consider you a failure, that’s fine, too.  Narrow definitions of success and failure do little to measure the worth of human being and action.  In fact, both are necessary.  Failure teaches us some of the most important lessons about who we are, where our capabilities lie and when we are out of our depth.  Failure humbles us, makes us more dependent on each other, more thoughtful about what we are trying to do with the precious little time we have in a singular life, and more reflective and savvy about the way the world actually works and what it takes to create real change in people and institutions.  Both success and failure are also deceptive. Short-term success may prove a failure just as short-term failure may turn out to become a success. 

As a Christian, I am always mindful that the sign of a human crucified on a cross has become one of history’s most powerful examples of the deceptive nature of judging success and failure. The goal is not winning and losing – it is living with purpose and meaning and leaving a mark on the world and others.  As over-achiever and profoundly successful Albert Einstein once put it this way: “Try not to become a (person) of success, but rather try to become a (person) of value.”  As her parents and friends know so well, Heather was both.

In a historical period in which it seems the ideals of a more just and humane world are drifting farther away from us than drawing close, a Strayer and ancient religious view of success can empower us to embrace the unsatisfying truth of social action and leadership in our period of history: like Moses, most of us are not going to reach the promised land.  But, that doesn’t matter if we truly interiorize the longer view.  “Success,” Winston Churchill once said, reflecting on a life-time of leadership in the turmoil of the 20th century, “consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”  Though it will never inspire a Hallmark movie, this is the attitude toward success that defeated the evil and destructiveness of the Third Reich.  And, no matter what happens after Charlottesville, it will win out over the white nationalism still festering in the historical memory of some citizens in our troubled nation.