Modern culture has its version of it. You know what I am talking about. It is usually presented to us in pictures or catchy phrases designed to create images and thoughts. It’s a specific kind of car, house, clothing, shoes, vacation, job and maybe even a specific type of wristwatch. We could drill-down even further with this list but I am sure you already have in your own minds. Let’s pause for just a moment though because I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. I am not implying possessing nice things is bad; it isn’t. What I do wish to address though is the preoccupation with success being defined in material terms.
A simple definition of success is to achieve an aim or purpose. When we begin to see our ultimate achievements as material items, I personally believe we do ourselves (and our soul) a great disservice. There are countless stories throughout history of what one might call “materially unsuccessful” people who had success that changed the world in profound and lasting ways. Let’s explore a few together.
Anne Frank (Literary and Cultural Success)
Anne at the behest of an exiled Dutch government official to his people, famously hid in the secret attic of her home and kept a diary detailing oppression by the Nazis. Sadly, Anne did not survive the war, but her story did.
Anne’s story has been read by countless people. It helps us all to put a human face to the atrocities committed and to empathize with the victims of the holocaust. Anne’s father edited and published her diaries which did ultimately achieve fame and riches; but the real success was her determination to share with the world a story it needed to know. Anne died only a few weeks before her camp was liberated but her powerful words have been heard around the globe.
Rosa Parks (Political Success)
Rosa was a young woman of neither money or power. But she had something much more valuable, a vision. A vision of equality and justice. She famously refused to give up her seat to a white passenger in Alabama in 1955.
Rosa went on to become an important symbol for defiance against injustice. Due to her actions, Rosa actually suffered financially as economic sanctions against activists resulted in her losing her job. Though she did make money for speaking engagements she donated most of her earnings to civil rights causes.
Late in life she and her husband were forced to rely for support from various church groups. Rosa’s success was to achieve a higher degree of equality and justice for all.
Gregor Mendel (Scientific Success)
Gregor Mendel is known as the father of genetics. Because of financial struggles, he became a friar as a means to pursue his studies, originally in philosophy. A gardener and beekeeper, Gregor observed certain traits being passed along generationally by plants and animals and wondered how this might be manipulated.
He began his quest using mice but quickly met resistance from the church due the sexual nature of the studies. He then switched to plants. Famously, he conducted a meticulous study of hereditary traits of pea plants. From this work came the Law of Segregation and the Law of Independent Assortment. Mendel never made any money from his theories. However, his contribution to our understanding of biology is considered intrinsic to the way in which we understand genetics today.
Vincent Van Gogh (Artistic Success)
Vincent was penniless and sold only one painting during his lifetime. In 1990 one of his portraits (Dr. Gachet) sold for $82.5 million and is now worth over $150 million. His expressionistic style has influenced countless prolific artists, including Jackson Pollock and Francis Bacon.
Vincent was a reclusive man who ultimately took his own life. Yet millions around the world love and appreciate his art today. Every year around 1.5 million people visit the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, demonstrating the enduring influence of his work even over 100 years after his tragic suicide.
Mother Teresa (Moral and Spiritual Success)
Mother Teresa at her core was a missionary but her work went beyond religious doctrine to inspire change in the way in which we view charitable giving and works. Specifically, she ran hospices and homes for sufferers of HIV, leprosy and tuberculosis which helped to change the way in which the victims of these diseases (previously vilified or feared by many) were viewed and treated by the world.
Her success was one of charity and kindness to all. In 2003 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
On 13 March 1997 Teresa resigned as head of the Missionaries of Charity, and she died on 5 September. At the time of her death, the Missionaries of Charity had over 4,000 sisters and an associated brotherhood of 300 members operating 610 missions in 123 countries.
In conclusion, success is certainly not only material, in fact I would argue that viewing things in that manner is akin to “cheap counterfeit” when compared to non-material success. So, as we all assess our lives each day, let’s make a greater effort to see our individual success in non-material terms. Truthfully, for me, I would much rather be known for blessing and helping many people than having owned a Mercedes Benz…….
How do you define success?