Extracts from this morning’s Service at The Old Meeting House, by Rev. Duncan Voice
Once upon a time, a woodcarver made a magnificent statue, a true work of art greatly admired by one and all. Even his sovereign, Prince Li, was full of praise and asked him for his secret. The sculptor replied, “How can I, a humble man and your servant, possibly have a secret from you? I have no secret, nor is my art anything special. I shall tell you, however, how my work was done. When I decided to carve a statue, I observed that I was too full of vanity and pride. So, I worked for two days to rid myself of these sins, and believed I was then cleansed of them. But presently I discovered that I was impelled by envy of a colleague. Again, I worked for two days to overcome my envy. Thereupon I found I longed greatly for praise. It took me another two days to make this longing vanish. Finally, however, I noticed that I kept thinking of how much money I might get for the statue. This time I needed four days, but at last I felt free and strong. I went to the woods and when I found a pine tree and felt we suited each other, I felled it, took it to my house and set to work.
(from Etty Hillesum: The Complete Works 1941-1943)
Luke 9: 23-25
23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?
In a book of quotations that I have, called “1001 quotations to inspire you before you die”, there is one by the former first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt. It says, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” It was apparently taken from a self-help book that she wrote called “You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life”, published in 1960. The specific chapter was called “Fear – the Great Enemy”. The full passage, from which the quote was taken, goes like this,
“The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to get to grips with it. If you fail anywhere along the line it will take away your confidence. You must succeed every time. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
I like the idea of challenging myself to do a thing I think I cannot do, but was she really serious about that penultimate sentence, “You must succeed every time”? Really! Eleanor Roosevelt was 76 years old when that book was published 60 years ago, so perhaps it represents a different time? An early version of the many self-help books that have been published since by people who have succeeded in in life. Or at least believe they have! Nevertheless, I still find it an extraordinarily unforgiving and ultimately self-defeating sentence, because who succeeds every time? Let alone when faced with something they fear. And if you think you have succeeded all the time, have you really pushed the boundaries of what you believe is possible? In other words, if you have not experienced failure have you really lived?
She is right however I think, that fear can inhibit us and drain our confidence; and fear of not succeeding can be included in that. But what is success in life anyway? We measure the success of individual tasks such as passing an exam simply enough; you meet a set requirement and you are counted as successful, or not as the case may be! Some people are really good at that, but even this simply scenario doesn’t give the whole picture of everyone’s journey to that point. Real life is much more complicated than pass or fail, and many things that are important are not measurable.
But we do laud people as being successful in life. Often in quite superficial ways too. The most obvious being those who are rich and famous. We shower them with praise or awards, admire their achievements, their perfect bodies, their shiny white teeth, their style and elegance and extravagance; but then we also savour the moments when it all comes crashing down around them. They weren’t so perfect after all it turned out. They were human too! Never mind, bring on the next bright young thing!
Success in professional sport is another area of narrow focus in our society. Many of us follow some kind of sport and cheer when our athlete wins gold or our team wins the cup, but for every winner there are of course many more losers. When only winning is considered a success, people go to extraordinary lengths to do so. Some use illegal methods, such as taking performance enhancing drugs or resorting to other forms of cheating. Such is the desire to win at any cost.
Think also of recent reports of physical and mental abuse emerging from the world of UK gymnastics. I heard one gymnast saying recently, that she would gladly exchange her hard won medal to have not experienced the torment she went through on the road to success. All eyes were on the prize of winning. Most people never saw, or didn’t want to see, the pain and misery she was enduring. The real cost of this so-called success.
There is no doubt that achieving excellence in any field of human endeavour, whether it is science, sport, music, literature or something else, requires great talent, dedication and hard work; and almost certainly the support of a great many other people too. And although we should be wary about the potential cost, why not celebrate success that may bring benefits and/or joy to millions. But most of the world’s human population never experience this elevated status themselves or achieve “greatness”. Will never appear in the halls of fame or be included in the history books. Where does that leave us? Are we the failures, the losers? Well, only in the sense that everyone is, but as nobody succeeds all the time, nobody loses all the time either.
We all experience success and failure, although it may not always be apparent to us which is which sometimes. Not only that, both success and failure have two faces, not all success turns out to be good, not all failure is bad. Also, too, the completion of a particular task or episode in a life, is not necessarily the end of the story. And in any case completing tasks or achieving objectives, is only part of living.
Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun and spiritual author, says this,
“Success has a great deal more to do with being than gaining. Whatever we gain can be taken away from us by [others]. But real success rests on what we become, that is not given to us to us by anyone but ourselves.”
In other words, becoming who, or what, we really are, instead of what someone else says we should be. Shedding unhelpful motivations, like the wood carver in our story, to discover a more honest and authentic way of being; and accepting the consequences of that, possibly less money, less prestige, etc. Finding some sense of fulfilment, peace or happiness.
In this way our failures contribute to the success of our being too. Our mistakes and our vulnerabilities, don’t define us in totality, but they are part of us. They colour our being. Art Lester, in the concluding remarks of his article “Learning from Losers” that we from heard earlier says,
“What are we afraid of, really? Being discovered to be weak, vulnerable, corruptible, insecure? Of being found out? Well, that’s just three letters away from the heartfelt desire of us all: being found. Being found to be human. Being ourselves, being known.”
It is such a relief, where we don’t feel successful, to be able to talk about our problems and issues and feel we have been listened to. To feel we have been understood. When I meet with other Ministers, we often have an in-gathering where we meet in small groups and we each have the opportunity to talk for, 10 or 15, minutes about where our heart is at that time. Great trust is required for this to work, but it is a valuable opportunity to reveal that hidden part us. To say, what for one reason or another, we cannot usually say. Each time, a new moment, something different.
Success and failure do matter in many areas of life, but sometimes we can step out of these judgements. At our meditation group for example, as part of our practice, we try to steer clear of notions of success and failure. We are not trying to be the best meditator, not failing when we can’t sit still or our minds are full of busyness. Our approach is to try and accept the experience of our meditation for what it is, which changes each time we take our seat. Of course, I’m sure we all judge it at some time, but non-judgement is our aspiration. It may not be applicable to all aspects of our lives, but it is helpful, I think, to inhabit a different way of being at times. In particular in our spiritual lives, where we might turn for nourishment and peace.
Each of us will have a different outlook on life, and different views about what we think is important and therefore have different motivations for our actions. But sometimes it is perhaps worth reflecting that it is the small things, that may go unnoticed by most people, that may be the most important. Caring for someone, listening, living gently alongside nature, creating beauty and those small acts of kindness. And as one famous storyteller Aesop said, “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” Perhaps success in life is in fact simpler than we ever imagined.
May it be so.
Music: (Something Inside) So Strong by Mica Paris
May we all discover that “something” inside,
and may it make us strong as we face difficulty,
and may it help us to show compassion for others in their time of difficulty.