Taughannock Falls

Taughannock Falls
from: althouse.blogspot.com

Friday, August 26, 2011

A golden oldie...

A close friend just requested I repost this little reflective riff, which brother Cletis also seemed to like...

I started out this evening fired up to spew out another rant about the insufferable greed and selfishness of a certain kind of right-wing sociopath. The absurd comment, that provoked my indignation, was meant to be an indictment of government efforts to help the poor and middle class. Such programs were nothing more than "taking from the successful to subsidize the unsuccessful." O.K. This anonymous critic obviously doesn't see sharing as an inherent good. He also equates material riches with success.

Yet maybe this commonplace equation between "success" and wealth is just as problematic as the greed and lack of compassion. In 21st century America we almost always look for having money as evidence of success. Our image of a successful lawyer, doctor, academic, musician, banker, athlete, painter, engineer, salesperson, builder, computer designer-- all include money. Of course this is a relative thing. No academic, no matter how well-published and respected, would ever expect to be paid the kind of money that is given to a star quarterback in the NFL. Occupations that are consistently low-paid are just not linked with the word "successful." To describe someone as a successful bathroom attendant would be interpreted as mean sarcasm.

Is this tendency to define success in material terms justified? It would be foolish to deny that comfort, variety of experience, and other benefits are linked to money. There may be, nonetheless, ways in which we can succeed that don't involve financial success. Here I think looking at some real-life examples could be instructive.

My friend John passed away last summer, just a few months after a cancer diagnosis. I had known him for many years, having met him during my first summer in Rhode Island. He took a number of jobs, ranging from bouncer at a nightclub, to maintenance person at a commercial office building. His personality was so agreeable that he was liked instantly by almost everyone he met. Only his charm could have landed him the bouncer job, as he was a slender man of average height who could never appear physically menacing to anyone over twelve years old. Yet, while John was reliable and hard-working, he was not blessed with the chance to settle into a good job that lasted for more than a few years. After his divorce, John suffered a couple of longish spells of unemployment. This forced him to move back in with his mother and caused other hardships. John never knew financial success in the nearly five decades of his life.

Was John a successful man? I think he was. He had a gift for making people laugh and feel special in his company. He found tremendous enjoyment in fishing, and listening to music. He found pleasure in helping people fix their cars. When he heard something amusing on the radio or T.V. he wanted to share it with all his friends. He was always careful not to bring others down with his own troubles. His appreciation for the smallest gestures of friendship was genuine and powerful. Buying him a sandwich made you feel like you had helped to make the world a better place. John succeeded in bringing people up to a better level. I noticed that folks tended to refrain from malicious gossip in John's presence. Not because he was ever stern or judgemental. His positive attitude was infectious.

While John was a source of happiness to others, and a man who found happiness himself, not everyone enjoys that disposition. Vincent Van Gogh was a clearly troubled man who suffered many physical ailments. He produced a great quantity of timeless art during the last few years of his short life. No one wanted to buy any of it. Now his work is considered priceless. To own one of his paintings would signify great financial success. Was he a success or failure? He didn't succeed in realizing his immediate goals. He didn't succeed in vanquishing mental and physical illness. He lived, he struggled, he expressed his genius. In his own eyes his life was not enough of a success to continue. But we can't call him a failed human being.

I think we throw terms like success and failure around without due consideration of all the factors surrounding any human life. I know someone with severe mental challenges. For him to stand on the right side of the street, and get on the right bus at the right time is a major triumph. I know someone else who is a gifted scholar. For her to write a book review that wasn't insightful and well-argued would be a disappointment. The value of kids is not perfectly captured by their report cards. The value of adults is not measured only by their paycheck.


Ulysses said...

This John dude was pretty dynamite... man I miss that s.o.b.!!

Cletis L. Stump said...

Still one of the best pieces I have read anywhere. I'm going to repost it since I have many new readers these days.

Motivated In Ohio said...

This is such a good post. I have pondered what true success is. I guess for me, it is being a person that I want to meet. I will probably never be a financial titan, or a great painter, but I can try to be the best person that I can.

Old Jules said...

Good post. Glad I ran into your blog over at Cletus' blog [where I'm unable to post comments because of some glitch in the comment machine sets me 'please waiting']

This thing you're discussing here's been on my mind for several days weighing the yardstick of worth stricly from the size of the net worths of those being measured. It seems to me at the moment it's all based on the premise that, say, a real estate developer, an insurance salesman, a guy who inherits a tobacco farm in Maryland, a hotel magnate actually incorporates a default value to humanity absent in some bag lady. Implying he's actually doing something of worth for humanity she's not doing.

We never get around to asking ourselves the more fundamental question of what, exactly, the hotel magnate, the inheritee, the entire genre of wealthy and super wealthy, are doing that's of worth to anyone but themselves to elevate them into positions of judgement about whether the bag lady is worth the food she consumes, the shelter and room she takes up.

Maybe she's not doing anything of obvious value, but sheeze, are they? The premise they're basing their lives on is almost universally accepted and even defended by people who actually do work human beings depend on getting done to keep things running. Sewer workers have one hell of a lot more value than any CEO of a multi-national corporation by any standard that makes any sense.

Thanks for sharing the post and thanks to Cletis for it, too.