When Success Is Failure
Western thinking has done an incredible job of convoluting success. As a society, we have come to accept the idea that success is limited to those who finish first. If you did not win the gold medal, or make the most money, or have the best grades, you are not successful. In fact, as a society, we have accepted the norm that anyone who does not finish first is a loser, a failure, a dud, or maybe even a has-been.
This line of thinking has invaded every aspect of our culture—education, sports, business, government, military, healthcare, and even religion. You must finish on top—receive the best scores, pay the highest dividends, possess the largest forces, control the decision-making, or have the most people in the pews. Success has become black and white—if you are not number one, then you simply are not. You do not exist, you have nothing to contribute, and you may even be a drain on the winner.
This “number one or nothing” thinking has again invaded the halls of government, big business, and the circles of great wealth. If you are unable to take care of yourself and your family through your own efforts, you are a loser and a failure. If you require assistance from the government to buy groceries, or pay rent, or put gas in your car you are a leach, a lazy, good-for-nothing, and you are not deserving of this assistance.
In the late 1970’s, we were on the verge of defeating hunger in America. Systems and resources had been put into place and were making huge strides towards insuring that every man, woman, and child in America had access to basic levels of nutrition. Among the leaders and organizers of this movement, there was tremendous pride in what was being accomplished, especially because the issue of hunger in America had been ignored for decades. However, just as we were about to reach this goal of no hunger in our country, terms like “welfare queens” and “welfare culture,” as well as accusations of welfare fraud and abuse were introduced into the national lexicon.
Calls for major reforms in the welfare system were made by political candidates and business leaders around the country. Amidst all the screaming, yelling, and accusations, the resources that had been established to assist those needing food began to dry up, and the systems that had been so carefully constructed began to decay. Today, the levels of hunger and poverty have returned to the levels of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Even though there is increasing evidence today that the number of children and families living in poverty is growing, political leaders, private organizations, and business barons are claiming that our social safety net is being abused and the government resources used to assist people in poverty must be cut. Individuals in our government have accused those in poverty of being lazy and too dependent on government handouts.
There was a time when those who lived in what we now call poverty were referred to as “the unfortunate.” While this may not have been the best term for describing the impoverished, this term was used to acknowledge that those who lacked the necessities of shelter, food, and clothing were not necessarily in this state because of something they had done or not done. This term was meant simply to say such individuals were in an unfortunate situation. The focus was not on “why” these children and families were impoverished. Instead, the focus was simply that these people were impoverished and needed assistance. This thinking allowed for a large area of gray when applied to those in need. There was no need to identify who was “deserving” assistance, and who was “not deserving” of help.
Our culture today is in desperate need of re-thinking, re-defining, and re-visioning the idea of success. Louder voices that speak of success in simpler terms such as making it through a day, or providing ones family a place to sleep, or having adequate food to feed a family for a day are needed. Our culture needs images that ratchet down the meaning of success—moving from a vision of success as having large amounts of money to a simpler vision of holding a job that pays a livable wage. We need a vision of success that highlights being a loving, compassionate, caring individual, rather than an million dollar athlete. We need an understanding of success that says teaching and caring for a classroom of second graders is just as successful as building an international technology business. We need an appreciation of success that highlights loving families of all types, rather than owning bigger and bigger houses or faster automobiles.
When the definition of success is limited to a set of very strict, closely defined criteria that only a small number of individuals can attain no one is truly successful. Rather, this narrow perception of success simply identifies a minute number of individuals who have attained the ability to exert power and control over others. This power and control can lead to a sense of entitlement when it comes to defining who deserves and who does not deserve—whether the matter is money, shelter, education, or healthcare. Our society is dangerously close to become just this kind of state; a state that no longer recognizes the rights and needs of the individual. We are fast becoming a country where the few ultra-rich control the government, as well as many of the other social systems in our culture. This perverted idea of success is strangling the very democracy and freedom for which we say we stand as a nation. This notion is about our very existence—our Being-in-the-World—and the Being-in-the-World of our clients.
The time has come for us to reclaim the truth that when one of us is not successful, none of us is successful.
-- Steve Fehl