SUCCESS (A Sermon)
Once upon a time two monkeys were splashing in the mud, flinging their feces at each other, laughing like idiots, whatever. One of them said, “let’s go get some grubs” and the other one said “No, I’m tired of grubs, I’m tired of this whole grubby scene.” So he killed his friend and carved him into a pair of boots with straps. And he pulled on his bootstraps up up up until he was out of the primeval muck and now his great-great-great-grandnephew is a barista at Starbucks, slowly paying back his bachelor’s degree in subversive literature. The degree is not worthless, he tells himself – he has a popular blog in which he castigates the primates in Washington. The grand primates are unconcerned about his belabored writings – to them he is only a monkey flinging digital feces. Unscented.
…And once upon a time, a semi-intelligent primate was too lazy to search the internet, so I typed “success story” into my own brain and that’s what popped up. What is “success”? What does it mean to be “successful”? My two brothers, both born in New Jersey, are lawyers now – they’re successful by New Jersey standards because they both got out of New Jersey. I was born in the Bronx and married a Bronx-girl. I earn a tenth of what lawyers do, but I’m successful by Bronx standards because my wife is half Jamaican and my floor is covered with children. My Mother was born in Soviet-occupied Hungary, she’s a success because she does not currently reside in a mass grave. When I asked her opinion about monetary versus genetic success she was wisely silent, but I could see that her mind was engaged in calculating dividends of great-grandchildren.
I’m not going to go on and on about my family (I do hope to still receive Birthday gifts from someone this year), but even these few examples suggest a vast diversity of definitions for “success,” even among a small group of relatives.
MALE AND FEMALE “SUCCESS”
As a male of the human species my mind and body were built for hunting. And even though I don’t use these tools to kill animals, I can feel the hunter-gears turning inside when I zoom in on a concrete, short-term goal, clear everything else in my mind to make a straight path, launch myself forward, accomplish the mission, and then immediately forget it and identify another short-term concrete goal. “I will find the remote control.” “I will fill in the blank.” “Twelve other monkeys and I will change this light-bulb.” For the hunter, success is a sporadic series of quickie-victories.
Women are something else. I don’t claim to understand them at all, but being a Snodgrass gives me the right to patiently explain something I know nothing about. Elizabeth has been conditioned by our culture to approach objectives in a male/hunter way, and yet when she’s given a choice she’ll enact a different strategy: she’ll survey the landscape, identify some edible or pleasant or colorful objects that might trigger interesting thoughts or seed an enjoyable conversation, gather these objects in a bag and ideas in her head. Later, while shiny objects enliven the atmosphere and edible objects add color and texture to dinner, she’ll open the jar of conversation pieces in her mind, and a colorful mix of old and new thoughts will tumble from her mouth. Though she’s been trained as a hunter, her body and mind seem to operate more naturally as a gatherer, and so her ideas of success seem to be something like “I want to feel more fulfilled, to be surrounded by objects, foods and people that will make life more stimulating.” Maybe I’m way off here, I confess that my field-study of Elizabeth is clouded by the nature of my hunter mind and body, which is always stalking her in the hope of achieving a short-term concrete goal, a moment of victory followed by a heavy forgetful sleep.
Will I ever achieve a short-term concrete goal again now that I’ve said this in public? In my defense I’ll point out that I avoided words like “clutter” and “chatter.” A gatherer wants to be surrounded by interesting things, so she can nestle in them. A hunter wants one interesting thing at a time, straight ahead, so he can throw himself at it. And I believe that it was a combination of these approaches that made the human species so successful in the wild. But then you put these two jungle animals in the modern industrial consumer world and it starts to look crazy – our nest is a jumbled mess, she’s neurotic and I’m obsessive.
Our transition from jungle animals to urban intellectuals has been accompanied by a constant renegotiation of what it means to be human and what it means to be successful. Three million years ago, intelligent primates would pick a few berries, pee on a bush and say “There, now we’re both happy.” Success for them was to briefly carry a torch in the great relay-race of life. To eat, shoot and leave, sprouting a few healthy babies and bowel movements along the way. Then ten thousand years ago came the farmer who chops down the bush because it only sprouts berries once a year, and he plants some corn. For him, “success” means being a man, he fights the earth to give him what he wants, returning only the bare minimum to keep the earth producing. Of course the Earth is always winning, so he and his first cousin spawn fourteen young farmhands to fill the Earth and subdue it.
Then there’s me – I read interesting things and say interesting things, I process information. Then I log in to the bank website and the number is bigger, then I go to the grocery store and the number gets smaller, and I cook something and eat it. I live on a high-wire, a tight-rope. I’ve been taught to fear looking down – you don’t want to be a farmer, that’s why you went to college, to learn how to get paid for processing information. And you don’t want to be a forager, that’s why your forefathers took over the world, and it wasn’t easy! But that means “success” is something more abstract, because my hands are neither trading with the earth nor fighting with it.
I suppose “success” is becoming synonymous with celebrity. The world, it turns out, can only feed a limited number of celebrity egos, but cyberspace can accommodate an infinite number of celebrities – the catch is, you’ve got to be your own publicist and your own paparazzi. When I was young there was an expression people used when you accomplished something – “don’t get a big head about it.” But in the selfie-generation your head needs to be the biggest thing in the world – “look at how big my head is compared to Mount Rushmore in the background! The obscene pride of Manifest Destiny is nothing compared to my vacation bender!” “So, um…I joined your fan-club, I get hourly updates on your newsfeed…but what is it you produce? What is it you do?” “’Produce’? Go back to the industrial age, old man.”
GETTING AWAY WITH IT
When I think about “Generation Why Me?” or whatever it’s called, my first impulse is to assume that for young people, “success” is an abbreviation of “sexual excess.” Like one of those Newspeak texting things, “IMHO, Success tonight, LOL.” But as a college teacher, I find that “success” has come to mean something far more alarming – for most of my students, the definition of success is “getting away with it.” These kids, no matter how many times they heard about a “good clean game” in Little League and Sunday school, a quick glance at the TV news revealed something else: the most successful people in this country got there by “getting away with it,” and stay successful by constantly testing the limits of what they can get away with. How many lies can you tell before you get caught? How many interns can you grope? How much money can you steal? (And, PS – if you become successful enough, you can attain the status of plutocratic immunity, “too big to fail,” where you get caught with your hand in the cookie-jar and still get the cookies).
We’re concerned when teenagers bully each other to suicide. I’m horrified when I hear about the date-rape epidemic on college campuses. Meanwhile as a college teacher I’ve had to become a detective to investigate an epidemic of plagiarism. But aren’t these just symptoms of the same disease? Tomorrow’s bankers and senators aren’t in college to learn how to ask deep questions – they’re in college to refine their skills of getting away with it. Because as children watching the Wall-Street bailout, they learned that “getting away with it” is the secret of success. “Do unto others as long as they can’t sue unto you.” Children hear what we say, but what forms them the most is watching what we do. “Bullying is bad, Joey. Now shut up and get me a beer, Donald Trump is on TV.”
It’s the bullies and superstars who become models for success – not the janitors, bus-drivers and teachers. Certainly not the adjunct professor, which I suspect must be Latin for “Scab,” since it basically means the expendable grunt you bring in for a quarter of what you’d have to pay a tenure-track PhD. I make less in a year than the lady who empties the trash can in my office – and I bet she gets dental insurance. Twenty years from now, professors will be huddled outside campus gates at 6am, the dean will come out with security officers in riot gear: “You – speak English? Teach metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology? Fifty bucks, you teach it today. Fifty bucks.” “Yes, I…teach that.” And some poor sap who’s been hired to teach ancient history will be lecturing “In the old days when men wore frock coats and top hats, there was a word they used – write this down, it will be on the test – ‘Re-tire-ment,’ which meant that someone got tired,” the day-laborer with a doctorate will get a tear in his eye “and then they played checkers for twenty-five years.” Retirement as we know it is a twentieth century concept, and in the twenty-first century it’ll be replaced by “Re-try-ment,” in which senior citizens will get to retry the service jobs they did as teenagers.
Someday our retirement homes will be like the Mayan pyramids, the Ziggurat of Ur, the great stone heads of Easter Island – incomprehensible ruins, cryptic reminders of a forgotten era. Children playing frisbee with a bedpan washed in acid rain will ask, “what failure caused the fall of this civilization?” And one of our primitive stone-age descendants will think a moment and say, “success. It was success that caused the fall of this civilization.” The children will be confused. But it was not failure that turned the fertile crescent into the Iraqi desert, not failure that turned Easter Island into a barren rock, not failure that turned the Mayan cities into jungle ruins. It was success. Because every year they strove to put more land under cultivation, more backs under the whip, more voices into the pledge of allegiance, and every year they succeeded, until the land was exhausted and the people were too many and it all came tumbling down. Success was their failure. Meanwhile off in the woods, small groups of migratory scavengers enacted a different story, no magnificent metropolis, no crops, no shirts, no money, no stuff but the basic stone tools of survival. Jungle savages. We’ve been taught to think of them as failure, and in monetary and material terms they are, but their failure is success. How do we measure that success? Everyone in this room is descended from primitive savages.
We may have been told that we come from failure. God’s failure to create a perfect world or humanity’s failure to be a perfect citizen. When I was young, I heard that the human story begins with failure and shame in the Garden of Eden, and that the penalty was death. And, looking around, I’ve noticed that our stone-age, bronze-age and iron-age ancestors do seem to all be dead. Except that they live on in us. Oddly we’ve been taught to think of that as a failure – if our ancestors had behaved better, God would have destroyed the world by now. We don’t have time this morning to delve into religions and various doctrines of “salvation,” we could sort of cobble together the notion that an immortal angel has been chained to an incorrigible monkey, the goal of the game is “don’t let the monkey act like a monkey,” and success is attained when the monkey dies and the angel returns to the sky (wait, that’s not in the Bible…I think that’s in “Escape from the Planet of the Apes”). From the immaculate angelic standard we’re all failures. But from primate standards we’re super-stars – to monkeys we all look like Kevin Costner and Madonna.
We are success – we are the pure and patient eggs that were in the right place at the right time, like a sweatshop seamstress who took a moment to gaze out the window and got discovered by a Hollywood big-shot. Each of us here comes from a sperm that won a dangerous race against a thousand million others, the losers all died. We’re the X-Wing Chromosome that hit the Death-Star, or some of us are the Y-Wing, I’m no biologist. We’re Top Gun, the best of the best. Not to get all queen-ey about it, but we are the champions, my friend. And when the Ben Hur of sperm kissed the Cinderella of ovum, we magically transformed our mothers into pumpkin coaches. And I would like to think many of our mothers, mine included, celebrated the success of biology, and not the failure of birth-control.
Of course the danger didn’t stop there, we are also the success of those people who kept us alive, who furrowed permanent creases in their brows and worried white streaks into their hair. And as babies we thanked them by drifting into a peaceful sleep, letting them gaze at our soft serene baby forms, and then they looked at each other and tried to sneak off into the nursery because we always slept in the middle of their bed and we said “THANK YOU!” But it came out as “Waaaaaaaaah! Were you two in the middle of something? I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate being alive! Hey – I know a great family game – you change my diaper while you feed me!”
Ten years ago I had the curious experience of doing childcare in the Milwaukee ghetto, and then working in a downtown Manhattan preschool, where parent paid 35 thousand a year to have their kids there for three hours a day. I would ask the ghetto kids, “what do you want to do when you grow up?” And they’d say “Oh, I’ll be the president of a major company with a lot of secretaries and my own airplane.” And when I asked the privileged Manhattan preschoolers they’d say “I want to drive a dump-truck!” “Sorry, Anastacio, you can grow up to be anything you want…except that.” Ten years later I wonder if there’s a trucker in Wisconsin thinking “well if I was running this company,” and a corporate president in Manhattan sighing, “Man I wish I was driving a truck.” But in all my childcare experience, there’s one thing I’ve never heard a child say (including my inner-child, who’s right now shouting at me to shut up and let you people go home). I’ve never heard a kid say “When I grow up, I’m going to be a semi-intelligent primate.”
“When I grow up, I’m going to be a semi-intelligent primate.” Wow, saying it feels good. That puts a whole different perspective on how I would tell the story of how I got from my Mommy’s tummy to here. Because when I say that, I feel like a success, like maybe I’ve accomplished that and more. No pressure, I’m not here to push you into any monkey-business, but if you say I with me, it might feel good. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a semi-intelligent primate.”