We have come to the time of year when a certain word is on everyone’s lips. It’s been the guiding principle of events taking place in Tokyo. Schools and teachers can obsess about it, pupils are exhorted to pursue it and to make it their own. In a few short weeks an attempt will be made to quantify it via ‘results’.
I am referring to the word ‘success’.
Success – one of those words that everyone thinks they know what it means until they are asked to define it. For precisely what do we mean by success?
Conventionally success is measured in recognised ways. Cups are presented, medals are received, records are established and broken. In exams, results greeted with whoops of joy or tears of regret.
Yet even these seemingly clear-cut examples only point to one simple measure of success. Anyone who has competed in sport will know that the more accomplished and skilled you become ultimately you are competing against yourself.
What is a good time for the 100m sprint? Well if you are an Olympic athelete it will be one time, and if you are running at school it will be another.
Academic results are like that too. Different people – different gifts.
And as in school so in life. The outside world is no different.
We are constantly under pressure to “be a success” but if it’s not as easy as one thought to define success in school, it becomes even more difficult as life goes on.
Is a successful businessman simply the richest? But that could be someone who merely inherited a financial empire and has had little to do with its inevitable growth. Or is it the person who had a dream, who invented something breathtakingly new and different, even if the billions may never roll in?
Who is more successful, Tim Berners-Lee, whose generous imagination invented the internet, but who essentially gave it to the world without hoping to exploit it, or Donald Trump who became President of the United States?
Do we apply the simple external measures of money and status?
Some years ago the BBC made an extraordinary series called the Monastery. Five men with everyday lives, had to spend six weeks in a monastery, Worth Abbey, conforming to it’s rules and it’s rhythm.
At first they found it’s values and way of life alien and hard to understand. The usual questions and jokes came out about monks and their very different community. For some the tensions of living so close to other people was almost too much to cope with, but gradually they all started to understand and to appreciate the community.
The values seemed no longer crazy but right and true and good. They came to realise was that they were valued and cared for, not because of what they were, but for themselves, the person inside.
By the end of the experiment, all of the men, even the real sceptics, came to respect and esteem the monks and the ideals for which they stood. All of them had made significant progress on their own spiritual journey. But one especially made enormous strides.
His name was Tony, an ex advertising man of 39, who had started directing soft core porn trailers to advertise sex chat-lines on cable. He had spent his life chasing ‘success’: girls, money and cars – and let’s face it he was not alone in thinking those things were the stuff of life!
But part of him had come to realise that what he had once thought the objects of his desires, now felt as if they were holding him back from something important.
Almost at the end of his stay he was to be literally rocked in his seat in his final conversation with the monk who had guided him through his stay.
Brother Francis gave him a small flat white stone, the sort that sits in the palm of your hand and spoke to him of an idea from the Book of Revelation, that of a white stone that exists for all of us, upon which is engraved our name. Not our family name, and not the name that we were given as babies, but the name that describes who we truly are, the real us beneath the masks and the facades; not the us we try to show to the world but the person we are meant to be.
The authentic I.
Our job, Brother Francis said is to discover that name.
That the truly ‘successful’ life is to be the real us, the person who is truly inside, the person just waiting to expand and grow. The person who God created with love and with purpose. The athletes in Tokyo probably understand this better than those of us watching them.
Susan and Kevin O’Brien – The Rectory, Binden Street, Ennis, St. Columba’s Church