What does it mean to succeed in life? By definition, success refers to achieving a desired aim. But what if your desired aim is to be a world-traveler and you are willing to work odd jobs in random countries for minimal pay? This is not a conventional image of success. We feel the weight of society upon us whenever our personal goals deviate too far from the social norm. Even though we all just want to be happy, our happiness is in constant tension with our need for acceptance.
When the need for acceptance wins, we give up our own version of success for the conventional definition. Chuck Palahniuk says it best in Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you.” Even though you may still feel like you’re in the driver-seat, you know deep down that you’re driving down the wrong road. As the sense of resentment grows, the morphine drip of material comforts, social status, and security numbs this nagging feeling. Beyond just material success, we seek “spiritual” success in a sense of self-righteousness offered by religions devoid of spirituality. As Karl Marx said, religion is the “opium of the people.”
Sunday mornings become fashion shows. We wear things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like. In my youth, a church-going woman wearing pearls asked me how many starving children my silver chain might feed. The drip of self-righteous opium leaves logs in their eyes, but they can’t even feel it. Affluent society masks its hypocrisy with a veneer of politeness and good manners. Symbols of material success become symbols of moral success, disguising the state of moral lack. As William James said:
“The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That – with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word ‘success’ – is our national disease.”
This false image of success keeps us always looking for more. Bigger, better, smarter, faster, stronger, more attention, more stuff! The more we get, the more we want. Émile Durkheim characterizes this state of moral flabbiness in the following way:
“Unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly considered a sign of morbidity. Being unlimited, they constantly and infinitely surpass the means at their command; they cannot be quenched. Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture.”
Drinking from the seductive cup of success will only make you thirstier.
In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy gives a tragic account of a man who wasted his whole life conforming to an empty social norm. On his deathbed, Ivan Illych comes to question the whole of his life. Had he been merely going through the prescribed motions? In the society depicted, success comes at the cost of meaningful human relations. As stated by Psychologist Mark Freeman in his 1997 publication in Cambridge Journal’s Ageing & Society:
“Tolstoy’s book is about many things: the tyranny of bourgeois niceties, the terrible weak spots of the human heart, the primacy and elision of death. But more than anything, I would offer, it is about the consequences of living without meaning, that is, without a true and abiding connection to one’s life.“
A true and abiding connection to one’s life means living beyond the superficial success game. Veterans returning from deployment know this better than anyone else. Upon returning from a world where every decision means the difference between life and death, they are quick to diagnose our society’s moral flabbiness. As one Canadian veteran states:
“It’s hard to care about things you should care about in civilian life.”
“There was just an overwhelming sense that nothing mattered…”
Bryan Wood, a U.S veteran, mirrors this sentiment in his memoir, Unspoken Abandonment. After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, his sense of what mattered in life was uprooted. Referring to the conversations of co-workers he states:
“I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life… I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”
“…you’re used to doing things that mattered, and suddenly your life is simply digesting bullshit and consuming instead…”
Consumer culture leads us away from the true and abiding connection to one’s life that comes with following our own path toward fulfillment. Redefining success means staying true to a deeper sense of purpose, despite deviating from a superficial social norm. It means finding joy in suffering. It means having the courage to peruse one’s own journey when confronted by the fear of uncertainty. In a world characterized by rapidly growing uncertainty, we can try to seek solace in the empty promise of conventional success, or we can choose our own path. The choice is yours.
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