“A few years ago a man who was compiling a book entitled Success wrote and asked me to contribute a statement on how I had got to be a success. I replied indignantly that I was not allowed to consider myself a success…If it so happened that I had once written a best seller, this was a pure accident…and I would take very good care never to do the same again…
If I had a message for my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live…”
Never one to mince words, monk, mystic, and social critic Thomas Merton reacted strongly to the suggestion that he could be considered a success. Though he lived in the cloistered seclusion of a monastery, Merton’s prominence as a writer – his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain has sold millions – made him a household name in the mid twentieth century. But fame and fortune, usually thought to be indicators of success, were of no interest to him, for he had chosen to measure his worth by a different standard.
Merton’s message for his contemporaries and for us is one of contradiction – which literally means “against the word.” Every society has its “word,” its message, its definition of success, which is usually based on wealth, power, position, and the like. We “climb the ladder,” get a raise, accomplish our goals, garner the praise of others, etc. Nothing wrong with any of this, but it leaves little room for failure! Yes, failure, which is thought to be the opposite of success, is really central to it according to Winston Churchill who once opined that success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. Success, in other words, is a matter of character; it is not about unimpeded achievement, but who we become when the going gets tough.
Success is not a goal to achieve, but is, according to writer Bessie Stanley, the result of having “… lived well, laughed often, and loved much…” It is, she says, the entitlement of “he who has left the world better than he found it.” Despite his objection to it, perhaps Merton was a success after all. And despite the fact that we may never be wealthy or famous, we, too, might claim that distinction.