My friend Lisa has persuaded me to share here at FDL this personal diary  I wrote on an anonymous blog I’ve had awhile, reflecting on the memory of her late ex-husband John. So here, without further ado, it is:

I started out this evening fired up to spew out another rant about the insufferable greed and selfishness of a certain kind of right-wing sociopath. The absurd comment, that provoked my indignation, was meant to be an indictment of government efforts to help the poor and middle class. Such programs were nothing more than “taking from the successful to subsidize the unsuccessful.” O.K. This anonymous critic obviously doesn’t see sharing as an inherent good. He also equates material riches with success.


Yet maybe this commonplace equation between “success” and wealth is just as problematic as the greed and lack of compassion. In 21st century America we almost always look for having money as evidence of success. Our image of a successful lawyer, doctor, academic, musician, banker, athlete, painter, engineer, salesperson, builder, computer designer– all include money. Of course this is a relative thing. No academic, no matter how well-published and respected, would ever expect to be paid the kind of money that is given to a star quarterback in the NFL. Occupations that are consistently low-paid are just not linked with the word “successful.” To describe someone as a successful bathroom attendant would be interpreted as mean sarcasm.


Is this tendency to define success in material terms justified? It would be foolish to deny that comfort, variety of experience, and other benefits are linked to money. There may be, nonetheless, ways in which we can succeed that don’t involve financial success. Here I think looking at some real-life examples could be instructive.


My friend John passed away last summer, just a few months after a cancer diagnosis. I had known him for many years, having met him during my first summer in Rhode Island. He took a number of jobs, ranging from bouncer at a nightclub, to maintenance person at a commercial office building. His personality was so agreeable that he was liked instantly by almost everyone he met. Only his charm could have landed him the bouncer job, as he was a slender man of average height who could never appear physically menacing to anyone over twelve years old. Yet, while John was reliable and hard-working, he was not blessed with the chance to settle into a good job that lasted for more than a few years. After his divorce, John suffered a couple of longish spells of unemployment. This forced him to move back in with his mother and caused other hardships. John never knew financial success in the nearly five decades of his life.


Was John a successful man? I think he was. He had a gift for making people laugh and feel special in his company. He found tremendous enjoyment in fishing, and listening to music. He found pleasure in helping people fix their cars. When he heard something amusing on the radio or T.V. he wanted to share it with all his friends. He was always careful not to bring others down with his own troubles. His appreciation for the smallest gestures of friendship was genuine and powerful. Buying him a sandwich made you feel like you had helped to make the world a better place. John succeeded in bringing people up to a better level. I noticed that folks tended to refrain from malicious gossip in John’s presence. Not because he was ever stern or judgemental. His positive attitude was infectious.


While John was a source of happiness to others, and a man who found happiness himself, not everyone enjoys that disposition. Vincent Van Gogh was a clearly troubled man who suffered many physical ailments. He produced a great quantity of timeless art during the last few years of his short life. No one wanted to buy any of it. Now his work is considered priceless. To own one of his paintings would signify great financial success. Was he a success or failure? He didn’t succeed in realizing his immediate goals. He didn’t succeed in vanquishing mental and physical illness. He lived, he struggled, he expressed his genius. In his own eyes his life was not enough of a success to continue. But we can’t call him a failed human being.
I think we throw terms like success and failure around without due consideration of all the factors surrounding any human life. I know someone with severe mental challenges. For him to stand on the right side of the street, and get on the right bus at the right time is a major triumph. I know someone else who is a gifted scholar. For her to write a book review that wasn’t insightful and well-argued would be a disappointment. The value of kids is not perfectly captured by their report cards. The value of adults is not measured only by their paycheck.