How many times have I rejected God’s mercy because it came clothed in failure and disappointment?
No one signs up for an exciting new career or work opportunity with the goal of utterly and completely failing. And yet, how many of us have fallen flat on our faces at one time or another?
In my writing I’ve experienced a roller coaster of encouragement and discouragement. Each day is a new adventure in measuring incremental success and trying to reach just a few more readers than the day before.
While working to attract readers, writers are especially at the mercy of others in order to achieve success. If people aren’t interested in our work, then we may as well scribble notes on paper and fold them into paper airplanes. If influential people above us don’t offer guidance, endorsements, and marketing help, we’ll most likely flounder.
It’s hard to see the mercy in failure. When you’re on the outside looking in at those who are enjoying success, it sure seems like the successful figures in the writing world are living the dream, writing books in trendy cafes (mine is full of broken chairs and dust), and talking about their ideas for adoring audiences. We don’t see the inherent drawbacks in success.
Richard Rohr clues us in:
“A too early or too successful self becomes a total life agenda, occasionally for good but more often for ill… Our ongoing curiosity about our True Self seems to lessen if we settle into any ‘successful’ role. We have then allowed others to define us from the outside, although we do not realize it.”
Immortal Diamond, pg 27-28
Mind you, that isn’t to say that every successful writer, especially those who are young, are inherently captive to the demands of his/her audience. Rather, they are the ones who face the greatest challenges when trying to hold onto a clear sense of their true selves when there are so many temptations to seek validation elsewhere. They are the most likely to make a habit of measuring themselves according to the standards of others.
More to our point here, every successful writer I’ve talked to is quick to point out the drawbacks. They are targets for criticism, endure crazy scrutiny in the public eye, and often wonder which new friendships are genuine and which are just trying to take advantage of their success. It’s not all about living the dream each and every day, even if they can afford better coffee than the average writer.
If anything, my successful friends have humbly reminded me that just reaching a point of achievement in your career can be tremendously unfulfilling. At the very least, success can be a fragile thing that is sure to fade at one point. And when it does fade, we are left wondering what remains.
Rohr makes his case in stronger language when he goes on to quote Thomas Merton on pg 28:
“‘Be anything you like, be madmen… 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. If you have learned only to how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.’ Success is hardly ever your True Self, only your early window dressing. It gives you some momentum for the journey, but it is never the real goal.”
Reading this, I’m well aware that it’s perfectly reasonable to say that Merton was “successful” as a monk and as a writer. We’re still talking about him, aren’t we? That sounds pretty successful to me.
So, if anything, I’m encouraged to read Rohr and Merton’s words on success. Writers can achieve success for a season while still remembering that it is fleeting and ultimately a poor substitute for recognizing our identity as God’s beloved people. The great trap of success is that once people start to notice us, they will begin to try to define us and will most certainly judge us, and we’ll be tempted to give their words tremendous power—even drowning out what God says about us.
Think about that for a minute.
If you’re going to write, you’re going to receive feedback on social media, comments, reviews, emails, and (the introvert’s nightmare) phone calls based on your work. You’re going to see people leave one or two star reviews along with comments like, “Didn’t speak to me.” You’re going to have your faith, integrity, and intelligence questioned.
By the same token, you could be told that you’re brilliant and amazing. You could be told that you’re the hope for the future—the person who could save the church or at least a segment of the church. You’re going to be praised and honored for your achievements.
The crazy thing, according to Rohr and Merton, is this: Praise can be more threatening to our spiritual health than criticism. While negative reviews or insults can be deeply wounding, we can at least see what they are and take steps toward counseling and healing.
There is no ready balm for the damage done by success. Who would think of going into counseling to counteract the negative side of success? We may even tell such a person to stop being ridiculous.
Rohr and Merton remind us that success can exert tremendous power over us, trying to define who we are and what we are worth. If we can’t counteract our steps toward success with the grounding knowledge of God’s love and acceptance, then we are better off having failed in the first place.
There is great mercy in failure. Failure is an opportunity to step into our true selves, as loved and even praised by God as his beautiful creations, even when we don’t receive praise at the times and places of our choosing.
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About This Series
Rohr for Writers is a new blog series at www.edcyzewski.com that is based on the ways Richard Rohr’s writing speaks to writers. We’re going to spend the first few weeks looking at key quotes from Immortal Diamond. Click on the Prayer category to read other posts in the series.
6 thoughts on “Rohr for Writers: Above All Else, Avoid Success”
This is good and hard. Isn’t that the way with most true things? I love the thought that “Failure is an opportunity to step into our true selves. . .” A few days ago, I just stumbled on the verse: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; Do not fret when men succeed in their ways.” Psalm 37:7. It’s nice to know that we are not alone in this struggle over watching other people “succeed.” It’s been around for a long time. And I’m finding that the good-for-my-soul stuff is happening in the stillness and in the waiting, which often looks like the antithesis of success. I am glad you are sharing this series. Thank you.
There are so many Psalms about waiting on the Lord or being confused. You’d think we’d recognize that’s par for the course and not an exception to the rule! Good words. Thanks for commenting.
Thank you! This is open on my laptop so I can return to it over and over again today. With the publication of my first novel about ten months ago, I somehow got out of balance. I have been pursuing success. Gradually my pursuit of Jesus has taken second priority in my mind. This is out of balance, not the way for me to function or to live as a believer. Even though my time in the Word has not changed, my thoughts, concerns, worries, decisions, and meditations have been about the idol I’ve made of success. Lord, forgive me! Thank you for writing this, Ed, so I could see it!
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There is great freedom in letting go of success in book publishing. I find it tricky because writing is my calling, so I want it to be successful. If it’s not successful, it’s tempting to think God has let me down or something isn’t right. But I am learning to trust that my writing reaches who it reaches. I work hard and have to let go of the results. I think I have to relearn that daily, if not hourly!!!
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