Blessed are the Unsuccessful

Whenever I can, I like to begin my 10th grade English classes like this: “Someday, you are going to die and no one is going to remember you. Whether you graduated from Harvard, became a successful businessperson, or worked as a janitor, the chances of the history books actually remembering you are slim to none. So what’s the point?”

My school prides itself on its accomplishments. The school mission statement encourages students to pursue excellence in all of their activities. As a result, our students have sent satellites into space, travelled to Scotland for theatrical performances, marched in the Rose Bowl Parade, and have won state championships in athletics. Our students are headed for the Ivy Leagues because they have learned the art of pursuing excellence.

Working with such motivated students, however, has reacquainted me with a problem, one that infects every area of our lives. We mistake excellence for education, muddling together appearances with reality.

Excellence is predicated on comparison by performance. Instead of attending to the proper formation of our souls, we are more concerned whether others find us impressive, attractive, or enjoyable. We work so hard at our excellent performances that we’ve become accustomed to a mode of existential exhaustion. Then, like my students, when we’re reminded that someday we’ll die and be forgotten by history, we’re left with a distressing question: “What’s the point?”

In his book Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard addresses a similar problem. In an attempt to distinguish Christian love from worldly love, he drives a wedge between love itself and the performance of love. “For,” he says, “one is not to work in order that love becomes known by its fruits but to work to make love capable of being recognized by its fruits. In this endeavor one must watch himself so that this, the recognition of love, does not become more important to him than the one important thing: that it has fruits and therefore can be known.”

The desire for “recognition” is the desire for the appearance of love at the expense of love itself. In the same way, my students sometimes struggle for a perfect GPA at the expense of their education. As a result, grades don’t accurately reflect a student’s intellectual development; instead, they reflect a student’s ingenuity in manipulating the educational system.

For Kierkegaard, the only safeguard against the desire for recognition is obedience, a direct response to Christ’s command “Thou shall love…”

Obedience, unlike excellence, depends on my willingness to obey. Any other motivation encourages pride, which is itself a symptom of excellence. Pride, like excellence, needs comparison, because “it is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.” Without the comparison, excellence cannot assert itself as excellent.

Obedience, on the other hand, is a private act of the will independent of popular opinion. Obedience cares nothing for appearances because it’s primary concern is to be in proper relationship to the command. Every obstacle of excellence pales in comparison to the immediacy of obedience. It liberates us from the changing demands of comparison and ushers us into communion with God “in Whose service is perfect freedom” (BCP 1928).

Education, I try to tell my students, is the difficult process of learning to be good, conforming our hearts and minds to the will of God. The point is not that they earn an A in my class and go to a fancy college. The point is to become liberated, happy human beings.

How to Fail All your New Year’s Resolutions

There has been a lot of talk lately about how silly New Year’s Resolutions are. Facebook is full of satirical posts pointing out our past failures. Demotivational posters line the internet’s walls, reminding us that we – despite everything 2013 might mean – will continue to be the same as we were in 2012. These have some truth. But, the presence of failure is only half the story. Those who resolve to change will fail, multiple times, before succeeding.

So, in the interest of realistically tackling our New Year’s Resolutions, here is a guide to successful failure:

1. Make Goals for 2014

First, don’t make your expected result part of this year; make it for next year. In other words, don’t say, “I’m never going to bite my nails in 2013.” Say, instead, “I’m never going to bite my nails in 2014.” Spend 2013 becoming the person who will never bite her nails (or what have you) in 2014.

2. Your Brain on Autopilot

So, how do you become that 2014 person? Well, learn a little about how habit formation happens in the brain. There’s lots of interesting articles out there. The long and short of it is that your brain likes autopilot. A lot. It likes autopilot so much that when you try to act differently, it will fight like a cat in a bathtub.

3. Your Will Power gets Tired

Your will power fatigues as you make tough decisions. Choose broccoli over a cookie at lunch and find yourself allowing a heaping dessert at dinner. It’s tough on the brain to make good decisions, especially ones that run counter to previously made decisions. That means making good decisions on January 1, January 2, and January 3 wore out your will power enough that that entire box of Krispy Kremes you swallowed on January 4 kind of makes sense.

4. Let Failures Pass By

It takes 66 days of doing something to really make it a part of your autopilot; accept that the days leading up to those 66 straight days will include failures. That’s the only way to change. Celebrate how long you go between failures. Gradually, watch the failures grow further and further apart. The failures don’t own you.

5. Listen to Mr. Wright

In my favorite talk on iTunes U, N.T. Wright speaks dynamically on spiritual development, habit formation, virtue, and Christianity that folks seeking to improve in any area would benefit from listening to. Find it here under “An Evening with N.T. Wright: Learning the Language of Life.”

Go litter 2013 with the failures necessary to make 2014 a success.

Image via Flickr.

Tim Tebow, Faith and Blasphemy

I won’t pretend to be an expert in the world of sports. I can tell you if a given team is at the professional or college level for most sports, and at one point I followed both baseball and basketball well enough to name specific players on my favorite teams, but aside from that I am not what anyone could rightfully call a sports buff. It isn’t that I don’t find sports interesting or entertaining, I just have not invested my time and effort into knowledge about players or in-depth strategies usually associated with those who are considered ‘fans.’ Continue reading Tim Tebow, Faith and Blasphemy