03 November 2013

Success (\sək-ˈses\)



There are so many definitions.

Earlier this week I saw a link to an article entitled "Successful People with English Majors." I don't usually read links. But I was all over this one. (We English majors need a pat on the back every once in a while.) I was surprised at some of the results—CEOs and politicians and celebrities everyone has heard of, and all with some sort of English/history undergraduate degree.

I felt pretty good about myself by the end of the article. Maybe I could amount to something noteworthy after all. So, in hopes of finding some key to success, I clicked on an article entitled "What Successful People Did in Their 20s." By the end of the article I was thinking, Ok, I'm not in business school, I'm not starting my own company…I'm not even in sales. Thus I'm doomed to…what's the opposite of "success"?

(Um, yep.)

I'm in my midtwenties, I have a (financially) useless undergraduate background I love, and I'm in a graduate program because I want to…?…when I graduate. I have friends in the same situation. We're good people. We're trying. It's not that we're not motivated…we're just not motivated in that way. We're not clawing our way to that big-contract, competitive world where, apparently, "success" is made…does that mean we fail?

That was my first reaction.

This was my next reaction: What, exactly, is "success"? (Thanks to a graduate program that emphasizes questioning everything, even simple definitions.)

I knew a girl who slipped away in her sleep on a summery Sunday morning. She was 30 years old. She didn't hold multiple degrees. She worked in our local grocery store. She performed in local plays, attended haunted houses and spent time with her friends. She didn't drive anything noteworthy, and certainly no one in Forbes took any notice of her. By all accounts (if we're asking the authors of those "Success" articles), she failed.

But I witnessed the hole she left behind her. I witnessed her friends doubled over with grief when they heard the news. So many of them. I watched our congregation come together to give her the best funeral we could imagine. I saw the building full of her friends and family and coworkers—hundreds of them—come to pay their last respects. And I heard the stories. Dozens of them, all about the lives she touched, the people she helped, how hard she worked, how she made everyone around her laugh, the way she sacrificed for her friends…in ways I would never think to do. I've noticed the change in the grocery store, in the congregation, in the lives of her closest friends, now that she's gone. Even now, months later, I feel that change. I see tears in her friends' eyes even now; and sometimes I have to breathe them away myself. I've also felt in myself regret that I didn't know her better, and a stirring to be a better friend and truer person myself. To be like her.

Even though I wasn't close to her, I liked to be around her. She made me laugh; she made me feel important. She accepted me and engaged me. Where there was something to be done, someone to be helped, or people to help laugh, she was there. People looked to her for friendship and guidance and love. She possessed gifts that can't be measured financially. Because they're priceless. Hers was a life that touched ours for good.

She will always be loved. She will always be remembered. Not by books and statistics; by people. And her influence will echo for generations in the lives of those people she changed for the better.

In my mind, that's a good definition of success.


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