Today is a Good Friday to question the dominant religion in our culture. This religion gives comfort to the many and cover to the few. In the end though, it serves only itself and none of its followers. Along the way, it deprives many of the deepest joys available on this planet. In fact, its blind pursuit imperils the planet itself.
Our society has cultivated a cult-like devotion to Success. We slavishly organize our time and attention to gain it or keep it. We elevate the successful as paradigms of virtue — little gods walking among us — here to inspire us to greater heights.
Success marks the lucky better than the excellent. If you bought your house in 2007, you are not among the successful homebuyers. Your home-buying skills are found lacking. If you were born after 1980, your success has come more slowly. Generational arithmetic is working against you. More Americans are pursuing success than ever before. If you were born before 1940, you’re losing your grasp on whatever success you once had.
In simpler times, we organized ourselves around esteem. We’ve become captivated by the self-esteem movement. Meanwhile, esteem has stopped moving us. Our reputation in social circles matters less than our career. We’re “bowling alone.”
Esteem is both larger than success, and smaller.
Esteem can do what success cannot. It can outlive us. Fresh flowers on gravesites are not placed for the successful. Success has a successor always waiting. Esteem is more durable. Esteem’s circle is smaller but sturdier, limited to people who have been touched — probably literally.
Success has a wacky cousin that lives next door that relies even more on chance and less on skill. Fame once was a good proxy for esteem. Being well-known required that you knew many people and they had reason to remember you. Today the media follow the famous, but they skip the part where we learn why. We don’t learn why they matter because often they don’t.
A famous doctor or a famous wheelwright gained their fame by doing their jobs exceptionally well. Today the formerly famous can be less successful than you or me, held in high esteem by almost no one. Watch “Dancing With The Stars” or “Celebrity Apprentice” to witness success as both fleeting and empty.
Those shows get high ratings, which expresses our complicity. We in the middle conspire to keep the outliers at bay. We keep the poor and the unfortunate below us with our modern invention of pity-charity, affirming and perpetuating their lowliness. Likewise, we hold the successful up to keep them safely separated from us. Better that they represent some lofty goal for someday than challenge the choices we’re making today. We protect ourselves from one another.
Inventors and thinkers first gained protection in 17th century common law. The requirements from the state were simple. The patent applicant had to show their idea was “novel and useful.” We’ve since made things even simpler, removing “useful” from that exhaustive list.
Usefulness has fallen on hard times. Trouble is, usefulness gave us the assurance that change brought with it progress. The protected few accepted this measure of accountability to the benefiting many. “New” couldn’t be just new. It had to be both new and improved. No more.
Change and growth have become good for their own sake. Question either and you’re labeled a heretic.
Essayist Wendell Berry points out we’ve inserted “professionalism” in the place of usefulness. The successful are accountable now first (often only) to their colleagues — that is to say, to others just like themselves. Can true accountability be wrapped inside insularity?
Success launches a cycle of addiction. Success feeds itself first and leaves its host needing more and more success to maintain satisfaction. The successful adapt by specializing, becoming better and better at less and less. Along the way, they connect with fewer and fewer of those who bring flowers to gravesites.
If that disconnectedness makes them seem like gods to us, they return the favor by sacrificing themselves. Their efforts cannot lengthen their days, and the stress often shortens them. We receive no lasting good, yet we hold them up for all to see, if only for a moment — one darkened afternoon.