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New Greatness; or Some Thoughts on Success

If everything good comes from God including our talents, desires, drives and ambitions , then what can we be proud of?

We can’t be proud of our talents and abilities in the sense that we believe they are ours, and that whatever achievements we have were achieved through our abilities. Some people might say, ‘Well, maybe my talents and abilities came from God, but my tenacity is mine alone.’ But you were created by God who gave you even your personality. If you are tenacious, it is because God made you so, and if you are not ambitious, it is also because God allowed you to lack this trait.

Does this mean we cannot be proud of anything? Can’t a student be proud of his high score, or for graduating with honors? Can’t a parent be proud of the way his children turned out?

We can feel good about our achievements and this is what most people mean when they say they ‘feel proud,’ but that is not what I mean here. By ‘proud’ I mean the attitude that you can arrive at your achievements solely by your own efforts, or, if God figures in it, He only figures a little, e.g. maybe God sprinkled a little luck on your head to tip the scales in favor of your success.

Here is an example of the latter way of thinking: Consider the ambitious man who strives to achieve a successful career. Let us say he constantly seeks the help of God by praying that God help him achieve his goals. Let us also say that he regularly thanks God for every success, big or small. In the end, this man achieves his goals.

Once this man becomes successful, depending on his disposition, it is easy for him to think he is better than less successful people. The standards of this world say that if you are successful in your career, then you are to be admired. The more materialistic will say that success must include being financially well-off, but the more virtuous man (or the man who wishes to appear virtuous) will say success itself is what matters.

Thus, we admire the successful business man, lawyer, teacher, or priest. The more virtuous people will admire success in the selfless professions like religious vocations or careers which aim to serve the oppressed or the needy. The world admires determination, intelligence, drive, ambition, talent, etc.

What about people who are not ambitious or talented? Such a person will probably settle for a simple career which, though it will not give him the admiration of society, will at least give him a comfortable life. Certainly that is better than being a bum.

The most unfortunate will be those who have the drive and ambition but no talent. They will probably rise up, but only reach below their goal. They will end up disheartened but soon they will settle for what they can have. Their friends will pat them on the back and admire their tenacity which will be a good enough replacement for the higher success they wished for. ‘Oh well!’ they’ll say. ‘At least I tried my best and that’s the main point,’ but really, they are only sour grape-ing.

All these people can be good people, and they can thank God for whatever blessings He gave them. The unambitious and untalented person will thank God for his good life while the ambitious but untalented will thank God for his good life and for his success which, though not as much as he wanted, is enough if that’s what God will give. Still, the standards of the world loom before these people and they believe that they deserve less praise than those who are truly successful.

What is common in these people is their acceptance of the world’s high value of success. Those who reach high positions are better than those who get stuck in low positions, Mother Theresa is better than a plain old nun who never did anything but be a good nun, a bishop is better than a priest who retired a priest and never achieved anything but be a good priest to his flock.

Now let’s go back to the question posed above: If everything good comes from God including our talents, desires, drives and ambitions , then what can we be proud of?

If God wants us to become successful in the worldly sense, He would give us the drive and the talents. If God wants us to be something, He would give us what we need to be that, and all we need to do is choose it. The best example is when God wants us to pursue a religious vocation He would give us that desire.

This idea is not fatalistic. God creates us as we are with our desires and character and talents, but we still have to choose to be who God wishes us to be. While it is true that we would not be as happy as we can possibly be if we do not choose what God wants for us, the fact remains that we can choose.

I don’t mean to present this too simply. Knowing what God wishes us to do may be as simple as simply knowing and as complex as going through a rough and tumble life before finally realizing what He wants for us. And sometimes the point is not about what God wants us to do in this life, but the lessons He wants us to receive. For example, those who are ambitious but not talented probably need to understand the lesson of humility more than other people.

Still, the point remains that God creates us according to His plan. We are talented if we need to be talented, ambitious if we need to be ambitious, and so on. He will give us what we need to succeed, and we will succeed as long as we choose to succeed.

It might seem self-evident that we will always choose to succeed, but that is not the case. A man may know that he must remain faithful to his wife in order to succeed as a virtuous man, but it won’t be easy for him if he has a lustful nature. There might be times when he succeeds and times when he does not. The ability to overcome his lustful nature is there, he just needs to choose it by praying for it and by constantly choosing the importance of his marriage over it.

The world will not consider this success to be as valuable as being successful in one’s career, but for those who do not live according to the world’s standards, the success of choosing what God wants for us is the highest success a person can achieve because it is the hardest thing a person can ever expect to do in his lifetime.

Remember that achievements based on talents are easy to attain. After all, you have the talent. Achievements based on your ambition are also easy to attain for you were given what are necessary to keep going, e.g. your drive and desire. The easiest kind of achievement to attain is those based on talent and ambition. There will not be much effort involved in the attainment of your goals.

You might say there is still a lot of effort involved in trying to succeed even if one has the talent and ambition; but the effort involved there is nothing compared to the effort of choosing what God wants for you. It will be different for everyone. It will not always be about the rejection of sin though that is the most common form of how we choose what God wants for us. Sometimes it is the need to forgive or be humble. Sometimes it is the acknowledgment of a calling to a religious vocation. Sometimes it is the need to remain faithful during hard times. Whatever it is, expect it to be the most difficult challenge of your life.

So what is the answer to our question? We can be proud of only one thing: being able to choose God’s side today and tomorrow, until the end of our lives. The world may think we are insignificant because our worldly achievements are such (and before my conversion, I thought the same), but we who are guided by the truths of Christianity will know better.

What are the implications of this? First, that no one is better than the other, for we all have the equal chance of choosing what God wants for us or rejecting it, and regardless how many successes we have in the past, it is still possible for us to fail in the future. Second, the objective standard for greatness is not the kind of success that is valued by the world (as I had once believed), but of choosing God’s side. Hence, the plain old nun who never did anything but be a plain old nun is as great as Mother Theresa if they both followed what God wanted them to do, and likewise for the old priest and the bishop.

The unknown sinner who repents is as great as Pope Francis, the person who forgives an old enemy is as great as the saints.            

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