Archive for the ‘success’ Tag

India (part 3): Encouragement   10 comments

I have many Indians that are dear friends to me and whom I love, so I was sad to go to Kolkata (Calcutta) for only 5 days and under such tensions.  It would be wonderful to spend a month or two there.  Of course, when I speak of my own sense of failure in India, my friends there should remember that “success” and “failure” are relative terms, and in my youthful idealism I had highly unreasonable expectations, so I was setting myself up for inevitable “failure.”

In the end, my impossible expectations and sense of failure turned to a blessing for me, because it forced me to see that my sense of worth was tied to success, and healing could only come by freeing myself from that crippling deceit.  Folks reassured me that I was indeed successful,  but when they tried so hard to prove my successfulness, it only made me think that success must be a crucial support to my worth.  For my own well-being I could not listen to such words, because I had to establish my worth apart from what I did or did not accomplish.

On this trip my renovated perspective on grace had largely freed me from this emotional success trap, so I was able to take pleasure in the good things God had done through me in India.  Whether or not this passed the bar of “success” really did not matter to me any more.  As I walked the streets again and all the old feelings flooded back in, I realized that, however misguided I had been, I was also very sincere and genuine while living there, and I saw evidence that this had been used by God in the lives of many.

Some children from the new branch school

Friday was a very special day for me because I went to visit the school which David Nallathambi, Hemlota Das and I had started together in Taldi.  I believe they have some 350 indigent students who would otherwise be uneducated and trapped in the generational cycle of poverty.  This year they started a branch school in a nearby village to facilitate the education of 5 and 6 year old children who were walking 2 miles through the mud to come to school.  Young men in Taldi held a special program for me of singing and sharing, each one rising to relate how dramatically our presence in Taldi had transformed their lives.  It was a huge blessing for me.

Young Taldi boys

Thanks to all of you who have supported this work through the years.

Posted August 29, 2011 by janathangrace in Personal

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India (Part 2): Healing   2 comments

Much of my life’s darkness metastasized from this one seed thought: I felt inadequate because I accomplished so little for God and I feared  his disappointment.  If I just did a little more, I could please him at last.  And so I drove myself to extreme lengths–choosing celibacy, relocating to a city of misery, sleeping little, fasting and praying weeks at a time.  But I could never do enough to feel secure in his love, because I used my fruitfulness or effectiveness to measure his blessing and pleasure, and the results did not speak well of me.  I subconsciously assumed that God’s love for me was based on my usefulness to him.  In this way, my success was fundamental to my well-being.

I lived 40 years out of that false assumption, building up a whole network, a fully functioning system based on that foundation.  It required a long process to break free.  For the last ten years I have applied the salve of grace to my deep wound of worthlessness.  Given time, grace works effectively for me when I can identify my specific need and saturate it with mercy.    So for a decade I worked on delinking God’s love from my success, even from my behavior or choices.  I was determined to rewire my thinking, conscious and unconscious, to ground all my well-being in the unconditional love of God.  Though I did not focus on my heartbreak in India, I did focus on those underlying issues, so when it came to opening myself to that shrouded past, I found the weight had largely lifted.

It was not fully lifted because there are always new aspects of that one great confusion of grace which I need to identify and work through.  As I planned for the trip, my wife warned me against a determination for good results, but rather to do my best and leave the outcome as it came.  She knows me well, and it was good counsel.  Still I felt dragged down too much by a sense of responsibility to succeed.

I have a long way to go, but I am moving in the right direction.  I always thought I was responsible and therefore in control of my own success.  As each string tying me to that assumption snaps, I find growing relief and peace.   Results matter, matter profoundly, but I am not responsible for results, only for motives and actions.  My heart is slowly embracing the unconditional love of God… even, amazingly, when my motives and actions are faulty.  God is always packed tight with grace bursting to be free.

Posted August 28, 2011 by janathangrace in Personal

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Encouragement for Failures (part 4 and last!)   4 comments

Mardi self portrait


Understanding and accepting that success has no actual value in itself, causes one to abandon the pursuit of success in achieving goals and instead to look for what other purpose God might intend for the  activities and choices with which we fill our life. And I can come up with just one answer: Love.  The only thing God wants us to spend our time, our effort, our knowledge on is love. Love is not concerned with results.  If we are disappointed that our love is not returned then it is merely affection or goodwill, not love.  Affection and goodwill are admirable pastimes.  But love is not interested in results.  Love is about abandonment of all interest in personal gain of any sort and has become enchanted with only one thought, the pleasure of the beloved

We cannot think that our own actions, efforts or knowledge actually achieve particular results.  In any given instance, with any given project, goal or ambition, the results are not a product of our actions, efforts or knowledge.  Results are given by God as a gift.  Success in anything we attempt to do is not ours to achieve.  It is not a result of anything we can do or know.  It is not connected in any way to our abilities.  It is a gift just as the rain is a gift and the sun is a gift and the families into which we are born (and to which we give birth) are a gift.

So if our efforts are not about getting results what are they about?  Well they are gifts too, gifts to amuse us, to keep us busy, to exercise our minds.  And if our purpose is not to achieve the goals we set then what is our purpose? Perhaps it is just to love.  Perhaps the question we need to ask at each step is not “which choice will best work to help me reach this goal?” but rather “which choice is, in this moment, the one that expresses love, participates in love, opens the possibility of love flowing?”  We become detached from trying to imagine and control the future results of our actions (which we cannot do anyway) and become invested instead in the present moment where God eternally exists in infinite love.

You notice that my theory has shifted from dealing with whole lives to consideration of individual events.  It is concerned with success as the results of any goal we set and not merely as a general evaluation of life as a whole.  Of course I still feel that each individual life is given a success ratio that is designed to teach each person unique and special lessons.  But beyond that we can each look at every event in our life for which we are trying to manipulate a successful outcome and realize that success is not going to be a result of our actions and knowledge but will be a gift from God.  It changes our perspective on what we do, how we do it and why we do it.

These assumptions have even permeated our religion and theology causing us to think and speak of our relationship with God in terms of cause and effect.  We have developed the Protestant work ethic as if it were actually God’s plan for the world.  We explain scripture as if it were a handbook of instructions for achieving the goal of union with God.

The problem is that both of these premises (the use of cause and effect to interpret life, and the belief that results are achieved through effort and knowledge) are based on incompletely understood material-based models and are incorrect and inadequate to the observed patterns of life.  In fact the truth is that we cannot control even the smallest elements of our life.  In life, as opposed to the material world, effects do not proceed from knowable causes.  The correlation is only apparent and not actual.  We keep trying to figure out how to make it work because we are terrified of the alternative option – recognizing and admitting that we are not in control of anything, nor can we ever get in control of anything.  We are, in fact, totally, completely, helpless and dependent entirely on the grace, mercy and benevolence of God.  Even people who purportedly love and trust God find this realization frightening. And people who don’t believe in God would be left with no hope at all.

Success in anything we attempt to do is not ours to achieve.  It is not a result of anything we can do or know.  It is not connected in any way to our abilities.  It is a gift just as the rain is a gift and the sun is a gift and the families into which we are born (and to which we give birth) is a gift.  We are responsible for doing our best with what we are given.  But the results are not connected to what we can or cannot do.  The results are given by God for his own inscrutable purposes.  We can neither know nor understand his ways of granting his gifts.  We cannot change or affect his choices and decisions.  We can only accept everything that comes to us – as a gift.

And while our lives are all wrapped up in trying to achieve a success we will never attain, God is not in the least concerned or interested in success.  For him success and non-success are equally unimportant.  The only true purpose in life is love, not success.  What he wants from us is our love.  And he knows that all we really want is love in return.  And for that we do not need to achieve anything.

Mardi: horse & baby

Posted July 19, 2011 by janathangrace in Guests

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Encouragement for Failures (Part 3)   1 comment

Yes, Mardi often writes very long letters and emails! 

And as for my assertion that my life is essentially unsuccessful, you really do have to accept standard methods of measuring success.  It has to be one or more of the following :

1) the quantity of people affected by your work or personality – the greater the number the greater the success

2) the quality of people impressed by your work or personality – the higher the level of expertise of the persons doing the evaluation the higher the success

3) the amount of money, recognition, or power achieved by your work or personality – the greater the financial, acknowledgement or power achievements, the greater the success.

4) the number of things which you attempt to do, which you actually do.

So you really can’t honestly place the achievements of my life anywhere near the top end of any of those measures of success.  But if that isn’t a problem for me it shouldn’t be for anyone else.  In fact you should be really grateful to the Lord that He has given you the privilege of having a member of your immediate family be given a non-successful life trajectory.  There are things which can only be learned from that perspective, truly valuable and meaningful things which cannot be perceived from the perspective of the successful life trajectory.  By being included in my life, there are things that you can learn that you could never learn from your success-intensive life style!

Each person is given certain things in their life in order to learn some unique and individual aspect of the True Reality, not the perceived reality of our cultural environment.  Learning that particular thing your life has been designed to teach is the purpose of every person’s individual life.  And as each of us spends a life-time learning that one thing we have been given the advantages to learn, all of us – as a culture and as humanity – move forward toward our corporate goal.

Now you say, but what has all of that got to do with God’s plan for us.  Well there is one overall general plan he has for everyone – to turn from ourselves and surrender to Him and to begin the journey with Him and for Him and to Him.  However within the context of that universal plan there is a unique individual set of gifts given to each person.  And those gifts include the disappointments, the pain and the difficulties of life as well as the blessings.  Our weaknesses are as much a gift from the Lord as our strengths; our failures are as much a gift as our successes. And the purpose of all of it is to teach us something special and unique; and through us to bless the wider communities of which we are a part.

Success has no intrinsic value in itself as such.  The experience of failure and success can both have value if you begin to learn from them. And by that I do not mean that we learn from our failures how to avoid failure in the future or from our successes how to increase them in the future. That whole business of putting a value on success as something to attain and a negative value on failure as something to avoid is totally illusory. Are you believing me yet?  Failure has taught me the absolute illusion of the idea that success has value.  It has freed me from the dominating tyranny of the need to succeed.  So failure has a lot more value to me than success.

Why don’t you see what Buck Hatch [Christian psychology professor at my alma mater] thinks of this theory!  I’ll bet he likes it!  But you’ve got to present it as I have and not your personal bias on what I’ve said!

And as for my argument that art is a skill that anyone can learn.  If you came to stay with me for one month and took lessons from me for 6 hours a day (2 three-hour sessions a day) and practiced in the hours remaining, I could have you drawing as well as me.  I’m really not that good compared to the average working artist in America today.  I’m at the low end of mediocre.  That’s not a problem though.  I was a bit discouraged when I first began to honestly appraise my work on a number of levels and had to admit this about it.  But now that I’m inculcating my own philosophical perspective of the uselessness of success, I’m a lot more comfortable with honest appraisals of my work and my life that don’t turn out so attractively.

You can think about my theory and send me your rebuttal when you’ve got it all worked out.  But you have to have a workable theory that pertains to anyone –  like mine did.  You can’t just say you don’t see my life in that light and try to prove how my life doesn’t fit that pattern.  You’ve got to come up with an alternate theory of all of life that applies to anyone and addresses all those issues and resolves them with your theory!

Posted July 18, 2011 by janathangrace in Guests, Uncategorized

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Encouragement for Failures (Part 2)   1 comment

Mardi’s letter to me continued:

I began to think of life as a school in which each person who is born is given a unique curriculum especially designed just for them.  It includes many gifts that will give pleasure and gifts that will give pain.  There will be things to strengthen and things to challenge.  There will be things that seem to help and things that seem to block us.  But the purpose of everything is not to become or to achieve or to acquire any of the things we end up using our lives to become, achieve and acquire.  They are all given to us in order to teach us something more, greater, something of Real value.

People who are successful have been given a curriculum that includes success in the things they attempt.  But the purpose is for them to learn something through the experiences of success.  They cannot take credit for their success.  It was given to them.  What counts is whether they learn that thing of Real value that success was given to them to learn.

And non-success can be given to others for the same reason, to learn something Real that only the experience of non-success can teach.  That thing is the real purpose of the experience – the real purpose of all the experiences of our life.

Everyone seems to think that success is not only a thing of great value, but it is perhaps the thing of greatest value in life.  In fact it appears to be such an absolute necessity that everyone gets very upset when I assert that I am unsuccessful and they try to come up with a definition of successful that will allow me to be included.  They don’t seem to understand when I try to explain that success really isn’t valuable.  We don’t need it. We can live very happily without it!

But how does this relate to your pursuit of your own dreams.  Well, when I came up with this theory I decided it wasn’t so important that I figure out how to overcome my non-success and achieve the great American dream of success.  I thought perhaps it was more important to sit back and thoughtfully evaluate the experiences of my life so far.  I think you need to be at least in your mid-30’s before you have enough life experiences to begin to recognize your individual pattern.  It seemed clear that for whatever reasons, my life was being exemplified by large amounts of non-success.  So instead of fighting a pointless battle to achieve a dubious goal, I decided to accept my gift of non-success and begin to try to explore it’s potential for leading me into an even deeper spiritual awareness.

So perhaps for you, you might want to take a look at your life and see what degree of success you can expect given your track record so far!  I like to call it a success ratio.  It’s a ratio of the percentage of our efforts that have been successful as compared to those that have not been.  If you’re having only a moderate success ratio, or a low success ratio in the various areas of your life, then perhaps you won’t want to pursue the more elaborate and intense version of your dreams.  You might want to scale down your expectations and re-think your dream in terms of what you might be able to achieve.

I don’t know if you like that idea.  I can hear the high-power achievers calling it “defeatist”.  But is it defeatist for a guy who is 5ft.2 to decide that maybe he should try to be a jockey instead of spending his life trying to get into the NBA?  You could mention Muggsy Bouges.  But in addition to being given a short body he was also given extraordinary skills, great speed, a consuming passion for the game of basketball and a high success ratio.   In evaluating our potential in life we need to consider all our gifts, gifts of strength and gifts of weakness. If success is something that is given to us in order to learn something of greater value, isn’t it simply wisdom to accept our personal success ratio, learn how to live with it and learn from it.

Well, since we couldn’t finish our discussion on success ratio, I thought about it on the way home and polished up my argument a bit more.  I realize that everyone is so uncomfortable with my ideas on success because our Reformation Protestant European work ethic perspectives have equated success with our personal value, our meaning in life and our fulfillment as persons.  We think we must have success to have value, meaning and fulfillment.  In fact none of these are actually connected to success and most other periods of history and other cultures understand this much better than the average American who has put them all in the same computer file.

So to say I am not successful – and probably never will be – does not mean that my life has no value.  My life derives its value from the fact that I am made in the image of God.  Every life has the same value.  No life, however successful, has any more value than another, no matter how desperate a failure.  The value of each life is, incredibly, as valuable to God as His own life!  If I am feeling devalued or being treated as of no value by those who have misunderstood the nature of the value of life, I have only to meditate on the true value of my life.  Value is not something you can be more or less successful at.  It’s not in the same category as things which can be rated as successful or not.

Lack of success also does not mean that my life has no meaning.  My life has been given meaning, a purpose and a goal by Jesus who came to show us God and to make a way for us to return to God who is our only true Love and only true Home.  And he made himself the way, so that we have not just a sure pathway but a loving companion.  That is all the meaning any life could need – to walk with God, through God, in God, to God.  And once again that is not something I can be successful at, it is simply something that has been given to me and I enter into the gift.

And fulfillment in life cannot be attached to success either.  That which produces fulfillment in life is love – giving love and receiving love.  Love is something that comes out of your heart, it’s not an accomplishment which can be achieved in varying degrees of success.  It is like your breathing – you breathe in the love of others and you breathe out love to others.  And the ultimate source of all the love we have to receive and give is God from whom we come and to whom we are returning through Jesus.

Success not only does not produce value, meaning or fulfillment, it also cannot affect these things.  They are totally independent of success.  The imaginary value of success in our culture is purely illusory.  It has no real value at all.  And yet people assume it holds the very key to a valuable, meaningful, fulfilled life.  This illusion is so pervasive that even Christians get uncomfortable when I assert that my life is essentially unsuccessful.  They do not want to listen to my happy acceptance of this assessment.

Posted July 17, 2011 by janathangrace in Guests, Uncategorized

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Encouragement for Failures like Me (Part 1)   2 comments

My sister Mardi is a visual artist in multiple media as well as a poet.  I love her work.  And she thinks deeply like I do.  This is the first part of a letter she sent to me while I was struggling with my own sense of failure in India.

What is success, really? And why do we value it? Does it have any actual value in itself? It can have many meanings for many different people, it could have to do with how much money a person or project earns, how much recognition it receives, how many people it influences.  In simpler terms, for those of us who have a vision, a dream, a goal we are trying to achieve, success could mean simply achieving that.  But in our economically driven society there is another aspect of it: that we would like our dream to support itself (at least) and also support us (if that’s possible).

We have the dream, we plan a strategy for reaching it and we begin investing our life in it’s accomplishment.  We give our time, our thought, our energy, our money.  And the dream grows and expands and becomes more complex and elaborate.  But how do we measure the success? By the first criteria – achieving the dream, or by the second – supporting itself and us?  What if we can be successful with the first and not the second?  What if, for all our efforts we can be successful with neither?

My life has been an experience in non-success.  I am intimately familiar with all the various ways to be unsuccessful in all its nuances.  So I have learned a number of ways of dealing with this without giving up the dream. And I have developed a philosophy about the nature and purpose of success itself.

When we are trying to achieve our dream one of the first things we can do is recognize when it seems that the original plan is not working. We try to re-evaluate the situation.  Adjust our goals. Modify our expectations to something that seems perhaps more achievable given our resources and limitations.

Mardi Woodblock Print: Seagull

In my life, after years of trying to sell my work, promote my work, create work that would be popular, I realized I was not going to get a large response to my work.  But there were people who loved it and always responded enthusiastically to anything I created.  They were few enough and poor enough that they couldn’t have supported me for a week if they all got together!  But the spiritual support and encouragement they gave me was invaluable.  So I began to create just for this limited audience, with hopes that eventually my work would achieve a wider success.  Since these people couldn’t afford to buy work, I give it away as Christmas gifts.  Occasionally some one who has contacts loves my work and I have a brief experience of selling.  But even in very good years I’ve never made $1000 and when you take out the expenses for materials I’ve always lost money. Some years, with great effort, I just lost less.  By any standard you’d like to use I am unsuccessful.

I began thinking in recent years about the whole nature of success.  Some people think that success is the result of hard work, skills in some area or a combination of the two.  But I knew many people who worked very hard and could never reach that place where they could be considered successful.  I also knew people with great talent, skill and ability, people with magnificent vision and insight.  Yet they were completely unsuccessful.  At the same time there were those who were neither hard working, skilled, nor wise who were achieving success in numerous ways: receiving recognition and honors, making money, achieving the goals they set for themselves, doing the things they loved, enjoying the things they did.

In my own life I was exhibiting in local and regional art exhibits with hundreds of other artists.  But because I was in the category of printmaking I was actually competing against only 2 or three other people usually.  The odds for me winning awards should have been very good.  Yet year after year I never won any awards, even when I created very complex, very large works. I felt my work was much better than many of the pieces that won – but then what artist doesn’t feel that!?

What struck me however was that it was repeated year after year with all sorts of different judges and different shows, and different other artists.  The sheer volume of the rejection was becoming compelling.  It seemed that the ones who won the awards were also people who seemed to be successful in many other areas of their life as well, financially, career achievements and all that.

So I began to think that perhaps success was not something that we achieved at all, either by effort or by skill or by insight.  What if success is simply something that has been given to us, one of the criteria of our life, like our family, our intelligence, our size, etc.  What if it is not an end or a goal at all but merely one of the many things through which we can learn those things that have Real value?

I began to think of life as a school in which each person who is born is given a unique curriculum especially designed just for them.  It includes many gifts that will give pleasure and gifts that will give pain.  There will be things to strengthen and things to challenge.  There will be things that seem to help and things that seem to block us.  But the purpose of everything is not to become or to achieve or to acquire any of the things we end up using our lives to become, achieve and acquire.  They are all given to us in order to teach us something more, greater, something of Real value.

Mardi Woodblock Print: Butterfly

Posted July 15, 2011 by janathangrace in Guests

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