THE CULTURE OF SUCCESS
by Gerry McCarthy
Recently, actress Meryl Streep was asked what she would say if one of her children announced they wanted to be an actor. "I think acting’s a beautiful profession that’s full of heartbreak, and you have to be ready for that. If you can’t do anything else, go for it."
I was struck by Streep’s comments in two ways. First: a protective mother wanting her children to be spared heartbreak. But it was interesting that Streep also talked about the heartbreak of her profession –particularly when she’s considered one of the more "successful" actors of our time. After all, these days we only hear about actors when they’re making $10 million per film. Any financial hardships endured for the love of profession are no longer deemed interesting.
North American culture today is enslaved to a certain standard of success. That standard is extreme wealth, status and prestige. It’s a state of captivity that shows little sign of weakening.
In his excellent new book Snobbery: The American Version, Joseph Epstein writes about the "middleman" in our society. "The fellow creates little, builds less, changes lots, but develops nothing enduring -just takes the cash and makes certain he or she gets the vice-presidency, the best table, the fine wine, the excellent sports tickets. Prestige, at this moment, lies with them."
The "middleman" culture is taking a terrible toll. First, it erodes the creative energies we need to build a more just society. Secondly, it harms relationships. As Fran Ferder and John Heagle write in their book Tender Fires: The Spiritual Promise of Sexuality: "In a world where psychic aggression is chic, and image counts more than substance, it’s not easy to be vulnerable to another person without being dismissed as weak."
For some time I’ve been saddened by individuals using the word "loser" in everyday conversations. Too often it’s unleashed in a chilling fashion without regard to people’s dignity. I suspect the overuse of sports analogies is partly to blame. These days almost everything is bloodlessly measured in sports jargon, including: books, movies, schools, hospitals, and works of art. Soon I suspect we’ll be hearing about People magazine’s top-ten sexiest saints.
The middleman culture has invaded classrooms like a bad virus. In an era of standardization and testing, we now have children preparing "portfolios" as early as Grade six. Sadly, education is gradually being reduced to "job opportunities." It’s a dreary time indeed. Students often find themselves angry, frustrated and burned out. And who can blame them? Things are so bad that my 13-yearold son’s school recently introduced a "Joy Day."
We need to speak more about this middleman culture. Particularly the way it fractures compassionate solidarity. In a conversation I had with author Theodore Zeldin last spring, we addressed notions of success and failure. "We need to start using conversation to create courage in the face of failure, a balanced kind of courage, which can resist disappointment, and which can at last make us immune to the cynicism which has been so long been our scourge," he said.
We don’t like failure in our culture. We’re afraid of it. Success and image is everything. The alternative is "losing." It’s one of the reasons we don’t value interpersonal relationships. As Zeldin told me in our conversation: "It’s the development of a goal and knowing where one wants to go –and creating links between one’s search and the many experiences one has that is important. " We may not achieve the goal, Zeldin explained, but we learn many things along the way. "The casual meetings one comes across, for example. If one is able to have a coherence between one’s different activities, I think one gets a sense of satisfaction which outweighs the fact that one hasn’t actually reached the goal."
In her book Radical Gratitude, Mary Jo Leddy writes that: "Citizens have become consumers. They are interested more in the success of corporations than in the bonds of their own government. They believe there is more money to be made in speculating on money than investing in the real work of real businesses."
The middleman culture is a crisis of our time. The long-term consequences for human solidarity are significant. It’s why Martin Luther King Jr. insistently called people to recognize the "inescapable network of mutuality in which we’re all held." He knew what happens when we break the bonds of solidarity.
Confucius said that: "The greatest joy is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." Surely this is our common bond with other people. Not everyone has experienced love. But everyone has experienced pain. But when we’re captive to the middleman culture we’re blinded to other’s pain and need. Whether that involves a farmer in a Third World country whose livelihood is threatened by corporate greed –or a homeless person who requires shelter. Our call is to hear the cries of our brothers and sisters.
Embracing a North American-style of success means being enjoined to what Jean Vanier calls "the competition of life." Instead of delighting in excellence, we ruthlessly measure things in terms of material success. This erodes our compassion, tender-heartedness, and call to do justice.
If we’re going to talk about failure, let’s talk about the disconnection with the poor and the ravaging of the earth. This is where we fail to see our interconnectedness and the precious gift of God’s creation. This is where we need "to harness for God the energies of love" as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said. That’s where we find true meaning, depth faith, and solidarity with others.
Gerry McCarthy is Editor of The Social Edge.