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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Self Worth & Net Worth

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 13, 2005


The Buddha once said: “The less you have, the less you have to worry about.” And when we here those words, most of us nod our heads, and agree, and say, “Yes, yes, that is so true.”

And Jesus once said: “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put upon it. Is life not more than food, and the body more than clothes?” Here, too, most of us are tempted to sigh wistfully perhaps, and nod our heads, and say, “Oh, yes, that is so true, too.”

But then, what do we go on doing, many of us?

We collect, and collect, and collect. And we consume, and consume, and consume. And often, we worry so much about the material circumstances of our lives that we then have so little time or energy left to consider the deep and spiritual matters that truly matter.

Money can’t buy happiness; that’s the theory. But in practice, of course, money is the fuel that drives the engine that propels this culture of which we are part. “Money can’t buy happiness,” may be a sentimental credo to which we have all been taught to pay lip service. But in reality, the words of Dorothy Parker may be more honest: “The two most beautiful words in the English language,” she wrote, “are ‘Check enclosed’.”

On one level at least, I agree with the French writer Albert Camus when he said, “It is a kind of spiritual snobbery which makes people think they can be happy without money.” I am not one to suggest that material possessions—financial stability—a comfortable lifestyle—don’t all have justifiable places within human existence. There is nothing inherently evil about material possessions, just as there is nothing inherently noble (or spiritual) about poverty, either. I don’t see anything inherently noble in denying oneself the trappings and comforts of life for the sake of denial alone.

But as Kahlil Gibran once reminded us: “Pleasure is a freedom song. But it is not freedom. (Pleasure) is the blossoming of our desires. But it is not their fruit.” There is nothing wrong with striving to be comfortable within life. But to make physical comfort alone our god, and mere convenience our reason for being, limits us severely, and thwarts the deepening of our magnificent human potential. Or, as Vaclav Havel once said, the quest for the meaning of life ought not to be reduced to a search for newer and better consumer goods. Life yearns for more depth than that. “Ay, in very truth, pleasure is a freedom song. And I fain would have you sing it with fullness of heart. Yet, I would not have you lose your heart in the singing.”

How is it, then, that we take the measure of our success, if not through criteria like how much money we make, or how new our cars are, or how many bathrooms our houses have? How do we know whether, in truth, we are a “success” in this life or not?

On the most basic level, the ultimate tribunal for measuring success within any person’s life rests within the soul of each individual woman and man. It is up to each of us to judge ourselves; to discern whether or not our lives have been a success. Feeling “successful”, I think, is one of those human emotions like happiness that comes to us fleetingly, intermittently; it ebbs and its flows. It is not, in my experience at least, one of those feelings that comes to us all in a flash, once and for all.

The feeling of success is a kind of deep, inner harmony; a deep, interior evaluation in which we answer for ourselves whether our lives are truly moving in their right and proper direction. It may be the most important test any of us faces, too; it’s the most important exam of all—for without a deep, inner feeling of self worth, all forms of outer accreditation or praise or verification will ultimately count for very little, indeed.

Sometimes, there is a definite correlation between the outer gains we have achieved and the inner success we feel. But just as often, there might be no correlation whatsoever. I suppose that at one time or another, we’ve all known that person who seemed to have “the best job in the world”—and yet, who was utterly miserable and discontented. On the other hand, I’ve known many people in my life in the most humble stations—people who worked in jobs that most of us wouldn’t be caught dead in—and yet, who exhibited in their lives that sense of inner harmony; who seemed to feel truly and deeply within themselves that they were where they ought to be along the road of life.

I remember the short order cook who used to work the grill at the cafeteria snack bar when I was in college. His name was Walter, an African American man well past middle age, who had been a fixture at the college for as long as anyone could remember. We’d marvel among ourselves at how Walter could stand it there at that grill, all day, every day, week after week, semester after semester, year after year. Department heads would come and go; that college went through four presidents in the space of a decade. But Walter would always be there, taking orders: “Cheeseburger, medium. Hold the onions. Not too well done!”

Walter seemed as dedicated and as deft at his work as the most highly trained and well paid professional. At exactly the right moment, he would life his spatula to flip and flatten each beef patty on the grill. He sliced the rolls and applied the mustard with the confidant flourish of a symphony conductor. With fingers as nimble as those of a concert pianist, Walter would arrange the lettuce, pickles, and onions, in proper proportion, on each roll that stood before him. And all the while, he would serenade us with spirituals and show tunes, and Christmas carols (in season and out). And as he sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, he would flip them burgers, and carry on a constant banter with all those gathered around him with their lunchtime requests.

Everyone who came to that grill could tell that Walter not only loved frying hamburgers—but also, that he enjoyed making people feel good watching him fry hamburgers. Here he was, a lowly short order cook in some obscure state college in Rhode Island. But was he, in fact, any less a success than the most acclaimed celebrity chef in a famous New York restaurant, grown disinterested and bored with the latest affectations of culinary pretension? I think not. Self worth and net worth are often two very different measures, indeed.

How do we know, then, when we’ve succeeded? How do we pass that great inner examination, and come to some sense of our genuine self worth, whatever the incidental material situation of our lives happen to be?

The first quality that success requires is a sense of calling. We need to have some sense that we are part of some undertaking greater than ourselves.

One day, it is said, Sir Christopher Wren, the great English architect of the late 17th century, decided to visit the construction site of one of his great projects; perhaps it was St. Paul’s in London. He came upon three men toiling away in one of the areas under excavation. He asked the men, one at a time, what they were doing.

“I’m just shoveling dirt,” the first man replied sourly.

“Oh, I’m just digging this blasted ditch,” the second complained.

But the third man, it is said, looked up, and his face shone with inner pride as he responded: “I am helping Sir Christopher Wren to construct the greatest cathedral in all of England!”

If we are ever to feel successful at what we are doing, we can’t be constantly transfixed by the golden luster of new opportunities ever on the horizon, always just one step ahead of us. We have to learn to slow down long enough to do the best job we can right where we are. We need to take the time to experience the stage of life where we are right now, so that we can meet the next stage with confidence and vitality. Whatever field we happen to be in, whether we are at the top of the corporate packing order or at the bottom, we need a sense of the big picture; we need a sense that we are serving some cause greater than ourselves and doing more that merely accomplishing the individual, often mundane, tasks we have at hand. Success requires a sense of calling.

Second, succeeding in life means being able to discern that what seems like a failure, or a setback, or even a disaster—can actually be God’s choicest blessing in disguise.

Now, I’m not a subscriber to the Pollyanna school of pop psychology which keeps telling us, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, to “Look on the bright side of life,” and whose message, whatever jargon or vernacular they want to attach to it, boils down to the old saw that “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

That, in my never to be humble opinion, is bunk; there are many situations in life which have no “bright side”. There are many clouds, indeed, which have no silver linings; they’re just clouds, period. There are tragedies in life which are so heart-rending and inexplicable, that all we human ones can do in the face of them is sigh, weep, offer our sympathy, and endeavor to get on with life as best we are able. When I say that we should try to discern the blessings in the midst of adversity, please know that I’m not advocating any kind of easy, superficial, shallow optimism.

But we also need to understand, I think, that even the blessings of life don’t come easy. For those of us who are not fortunate sons of the aristocracy, succeeding at anything worthwhile requires perseverance and tenacity. Perhaps what we need to do is to view the life have before us as a voyage, yes—but a long voyage, across a very wide ocean. Life is more a Magellan-like circumnavigation of the globe than it is a hop on the ferry to one of the islands. We are required to hang in there at times, when it would be much more tempting just to bail out. Sometimes, in the face of real or imagined setbacks, we need the grace to know that it’s time to change course, or even to change vessels. Each of us needs a calling in life, true; but that doesn’t mean that our calling can’t change as our lives change. (As a young man, Buckminster Fuller was despondent, nearly suicidal, because he had been fired from two successive architectural firms. Finally, he decided to strike out on his own, and he became one of the most original thinkers of the 20th century. Ralph Waldo Emerson was ordained to the Unitarian ministry in 1829; he hated the ministry, and left it three years later, an apparent failure. But within a generation, he was being hailed as a giant of the American literary pantheon.)

To think that we can have any real, lasting success in life and never experience adversity is to live a lie. Shadowed valleys are at least as much a part of the topography of human existence as sunlit mountain peaks, and anyone of us who thinks we can experience the mountains and bypass the valleys is in for a very rude awakening, sooner or later. To be successful, we need to persevere, and change course when we need to.

And third, really succeeding in life—really succeeding—not just making a lot of money; not just having all the worldly possessions we’ve ever wanted—really succeeding in life means that we maintain our personal integrity, especially when that means choosing not to sell out our souls for material gain.

Compromise is a necessary component of human life. Each of us is required every day, perhaps, to make compromises between our needs and wants and the aspirations and desires of others. A wise person is the one who recognizes the grace of give and take; who understands that compromises need to be made if we ever are going to be able to get on with other people.

But there comes a time for drawing lines and setting boundaries. There are some things that aren’t for sale, and one of them is our personal integrity. There is all the difference in the world between making honest, necessary compromises and surrendering all we hold dear for forty pieces of silver.

We are, each of us, endowed by our Creator with a deep inner voice—the voice of conscience, the voice of intuition—which can help us to know the difference. But we have to take the time and find the space to listen for that voice—and that might mean turning off (at least for a while) the voice of the corporation or the firm or the denomination or the company or political party of which we are part.

If we sell off our deepest ideals for a pay check, then we are selling ourselves into spiritual slavery and dooming ourselves to a less-than-completely-human existence. It might be a very comfortable existence, but it won’t be really living.

If we bargain away our integrity, we become less that whole people; we bargain away any hope of success we might ever have had. But when we maintain our integrity in the face of challenge—when we maintain our precious, fragile wholeness of being—it is then that we have truly succeeded.

When we have lived our lives so that they have blessed others;

When we have remained true to our ideals and respectful of the ideals of others;

When we have done our best at the job we have at hand;

When we learned the grace of change and compromise;

When we remember the obvious truth that we did not weave the web of life, but are only strands in it—and maintain our sense of humility on the face of those greater forces of life in which we live and move and have our being;

When we have kept our eyes fixed on those prizes that really matter; those gifts of life which the ways of this world can neither give nor take away;

Then it will be that the material rewards which come our way will be a joy and blessing unto us;

Then it will be that we will come to value ourselves;

Then it will be that we will be able to learn from others, appreciate others, and cherish those around us as the blessings from God that they truly are;

Then it will be that we will have made this world just a little better for our having been here;

Then it will be that we will have found our bliss;

Then it will be that we will have truly succeeded;

Then it may rightly be said that our lives were, in truth, worth while.


 


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