Self-Worth and the Cult of Success
When I graduated from seminary, I was excited to see what God had in store for my future. I was hopeful and optimistic that the right job was right around the corner. Yet I could never seem to round the corner into the vocation I felt confident awaited me. After numerous rejection letters I started to get discouraged. Did I make a mistake by going to seminary? Was there something wrong with me that companies did not see me as hirable? With the rejection letters continuing to come in I found myself gradually responding with an apathetic attitude. I would say to myself, “Yup, here’s another one, surprise, surprise, whatever, no big deal.
However, If I am honest it felt like a bigger deal than I wanted to admit. Deep down I was questioning my own value due to my lack of success. I wanted to contribute more to my family and to my community. I was able to find some part time work but overall questioned my worth, and my decision making in choosing the path I thought God had for me. This was in my awareness at the time, but I was quick to suppress it because these were difficult thoughts and emotions to confront. In other words, I defended myself against these thoughts and emotions by suppressing them (purposeful forgetting) and apathy.
Apathy has been defined as “a lack of emotion, interest, or concern” (Merriam-Webster). It can be born into our lives through repeated disappointments. Since the pain of these disappointments can be overwhelming, we may (unconsciously) resort to apathy which protects us from being even more disappointed (Blackman). Although, beyond this protective shield often lies the emotional discomfort of confronting such things like how we view ourselves, concern for what others think about us, and feeling like an inadequate member of society.
Perhaps you have been there. Maybe you are there now. In the U.S. a lot of value is placed upon the person who is successful. Of course, being successful is a good thing and something worthy of pursuing. Having said that, success as the end all be all misses the mark. Viktor Frankl has warned us about worshipping “the superficial cult of success” reminding us of the value we place on human endeavors that do not yield the desired results (Frankl, 106). For example, the person who dies while attempting to save someone else is praised as a hero. Why? Because the attempt itself was meaningful.
“Lack of success does not signify lack of meaning” (Frankl, 107). I cannot say this with absolute certainty, but I imagine the prophet Jeremiah would have liked to hear that when he delivered God’s Word Jerusalem was going to see the err of their ways and turn back to God. Instead, he was promised that they would not listen to him (Jer.7:27). Does that mean Jeremiah’s ministry was meaningless? Absolutely not. While Jeremiah did not get to see hearts change, we witnessed his heart for God. And while it is popular to focus on outward appearances, “the LORD looks at the heart” (1Sam.16:7).
Trying so hard and not getting the results can be very discouraging. Nevertheless, I invite you to consider the meaning in the effort. Take time to reflect upon what it says about you that you took a chance on something. Think about what kind of values you have that would inform your risk taking or decision making (this can contribute to helping you understand who you are and what you are passionate about). Meaning can be present even if results are absent.
Frankl defined meaning as follows: “Meaning is what is meant, be it a person who asks me a question, or by a situation which, too, implies a question and calls for an answer” (42). In other words, we can think of our lives as being asked a series of questions unique to our situation to which we are to find the answer. We can also think of this as God presenting us questions calling us to discover how He wants us to respond to our unique situation.
I will wrap this up by bringing in another prophet. In Isaiah chapter 6 Isaiah answers God’s question, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” (v.8). Isaiah replies by saying, “Here I am. Send me” (v.8). David Guzik stated that, “Isaiah wanted to be the answer to God’s question.” God sends Isaiah telling him that when he delivers God’s message his listeners will become dull, deaf, and blind (v.10). Yet this does not make Isaiah waver from being the answer. The meaning was found in being the messenger not the results (although the message did have the intended result).
As you reflect on your life right now, what are the questions being asked of you that are pushing for an answer? Where is there potential for meaning despite your success? My hope is that you will discover these answers and realize how fulfilling your life can be.