Now that 2022 is upon us, some people are doubtless trying to uphold those resolutions they made on New Year’s Day: losing weight, working out, spending less time on social media, and other exercises in self-discipline aimed at creating better habits.
In addition to desire, willpower, and stamina, veterans of the resolution wars know that one key to victory is to make their vows as specific as possible. Instead of the vague injunction “lose weight,” for example, they aim to “lose one pound a week for 20 weeks.” If they want to get into shape, they leave aside the hazy “exercise more” and join a gym with the intention of exercising there every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning.
All well and good.
But the advent of a new year also provides the perfect opportunity to pause and look at our lives writ large. Losing 20 pounds is a worthy endeavor, but a big picture examination of ourselves can also bring benefits. This inquiry might find us standing in front of a mirror asking such questions as these: Am I on the right path? Am I fulfilling my vocation or my calling in regard to my talents? Am I making progress or failing in my quest to be the best I can be? And what exactly does that mean?
In short, how do we measure success on a large scale?
Winning Big Time
Our culture judges levels of accomplishment by criteria such as wealth and talent. Billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk are declared successful for the fortunes they’ve made and for having the talents required to rake in the bucks. This is nothing new. Since the days of Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt, Americans have regarded the accumulation of vast sums of money as a sign of accomplishment.
We bestow this same garland of compliments on our celebrities—actors, sports stars, writers, and other artists. Clint Eastwood, Meg Ryan, Serena Williams, Brett Favre, Stephen King, Anne Tyler—all these men and women, who are still walking among us, are counted as enormous successes in their professions.
Ignoring their personal flaws, most of us would agree with that evaluation. These are definitely people of skill and great achievements.
But what about the victories and triumphs of the human spirit that go unnoticed by the public at large and by many in our media, that don’t necessarily deliver broad fame and fortune?
Success Is All Around
If we open our eyes, we can see that accomplishment is almost commonplace in our world.
On Dec. 18, 2021, for instance, I visited the Old Opera House Theater in Charles Town, West Virginia, to watch a performance of “The Nutcracker.” I attended that ballet because my 5-year-old granddaughter—as cute as cute can be, of course—was making a brief appearance on stage as a lady bug, a role added for the youngest members of the dance company.
And I left that evening agog over the talent I’d seen that evening. The choreography, the dancers, the incredible costuming, and the special effects all knocked me for a loop. As I later remarked to my son and his wife, I was in part stunned that so lovely a performance had taken place in a moderately sized town that most Americans don’t even know exists. Moreover, I said, what is just as remarkable is that all across our country are people with their own burgeoning talents on display—not just dancers, but musicians, painters, writers, builders, nurses, teachers, mothers, and fathers—whose accomplishments may be unsung except by those who know them, but which are nonetheless real, noble, and worthy of commendation.
That ballet, for instance, was an incredible success, a grand performance achieved by talent, drive, and hard work, put together by what we might otherwise deem ordinary Americans. Clearly, ordinary Americans can do extraordinary things.
Which brings us to a less tangible form of success, but one that is real and commendable in its own right.
Lives Well Lived
Though often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, there is no evidence that he wrote the poem “What Is Success?” In 1904, Bessie Anderson Stanley created a similar poem, and we must assume that some anonymous writer took her verse and reshaped it into the piece that I shall use here for its brevity and application:
‘What Is Success?’
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and
the affection of children;
To earn the approbation of honest critics and endure
the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To give of one’s self;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;
To have played and laughed with enthusiasm and
sung with exultation;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you
This is to have succeeded.
Some readers of this poem might regard such sentiments as maudlin, worthy of a Hallmark card but not a philosophy for living, but I am not one of them. “To find the best in others,” “to give of one’s self,” and “to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived”—these measures of accomplishment run wonderfully counter to our age of egoism and self-centeredness, and, I believe, deserve our applause.
And “to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition” is a wonderful reminder to us to brighten the corner where we are. So many of our politicians, pundits, and powerful people seek to change or control large groups of human beings, often with unexpected and devastating consequences, whereas the mother who tends to her own backyard, connects with her neighbors, and laughs “often and much” succeeds more often than she fails.
As we can see from the above, there are all sorts of yardsticks we may use to measure success in ourselves and in others. Money, fame, goodness, talent, virtue, the love and kindness we show to others—all serve as the framework for our accomplishments.
And sometimes, the goals for which we strive may baffle those watching us.
Born in 1938, Dolores Hart became a big-name actress by the late 1950s. In five years, she appeared in 10 films, including the hit movie “Where the Boys Are,” worked with leading men like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, and was the first actress to kiss Elvis Presley on screen. She was engaged to be married, and her career in Hollywood seemed assured.
But in 1962, to the shock of Hollywood and the nation, Hart gave up her film career and her pending marriage; discarded her jewelry, fine clothing, and other worldly possessions; and entered the Abbey of Regina Laudis, a Benedictine monastery in Connecticut. There, Hart, now Mother Dolores Hart, has served the abbey and her God for more than 50 years.
How, we might ask, does such a woman, a rising Hollywood star turned nun, measure success and accomplishment? In a recent interview with Fox News, she said, “To find God is to find love.”
Kissing Presley on film has its claim to fame, but what Hart did for her beliefs strikes me as her greatest accomplishment.
Like Hart, how we measure our successes—and for that matter, our failures—is how we measure ourselves.