Australian apologist JOHN SMITH looks at how our society's view of success is often a concept built on sand.

John Smith
John Smith

All over the English-speaking world, success - as depicted in continuing bestsellers such as Steven Covey's Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People - remains a buzzword. But for me, success is an enigma. It provokes deep emotional responses as I reflect upon the manner in which success is too often achieved. Just what do we describe as success? And what, conversely, is failure? Given his lonely and tragic demise, could Howard Hughes be counted a success simply because he was a billionaire or because he was inventive and creative? What do we conclude when, in society's terms, an eminent success walks away from his power and fortune? A couple of years ago I spent a few days lecturing at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena in the United States. After an evening lecture, we all went to a local pub where I met an extraordinary person. He had been a vice president and board member of IBM. Status, millionaire wealth and power had once been his. But his dissatisfaction with the fruits of success plunged him into a personal crisis and led to his eventual defection from power.

He lost faith in the doctrines of capitalism, individualism and self-actualisation. He questioned the direction of the corporate dream and asked where it leads a society if it is not tempered by spiritual values and social responsibility. His conclusions so disturbed him that he resigned from the board and the company, divesting himself of prestige, power, properties and possessions. He gave away his wealth to the poor, shrugging off all encumbrances, to pursue a life of contemplation and justice. He chose to obey the words of Jesus to the "rich young ruler": "Go sell all you have, give it to the poor and come follow me."

According to the politics of this state, such a scenario is the path of an eccentric fool. But for this gentle, strangely peaceful and compassionate modern St Francis, the concept of a casino as "a light upon the hill" would be an obscenity and the sign of a spiritually and socially deranged mind. His decision to commit his life to resisting militarism and materialism is not the only way to fight against the disintegration of ethics, standards, relationships and values now taking place. But it is strange how a society that bemoans violence has repeatedly imprisoned this man and mistreated him for kneeling on military turf to pray for peace.

This man's dedication to subverting all that makes up the so-called successful life seems to profoundly threaten the system. His story reminds me of a precedent from long ago. But even a crucifixion did not silence the messenger of the message. It is alive and well right now in Pasadena.

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.