Redefining Success as Compassion
Against Bean-Counting, Resume-Building,
Inordinate Self-Promotion, and
Other Forms of Insecurity
We live in an age of bean-counting and it’s killing us.
Happily, the spiritual traditions of the world offer a healing alternative. They invite us to live from a spirit of wisdom, compassion, and creativity, without seeking or needing recognition from others. They say that we will all be happier and that our societies will be more just if we do so. Jesus called it the kingdom of God on earth.
The culture of bean-counting is anti-kingdom. It encourages us to live from appearance, affluence, and measurable achievement, forever preoccupied with how we are perceived by others. It is part of what Arlene Goldbard calls the culture of metrics, in which no good deed remains uncounted.
If you happen to be in academia, you know what she means. Publish an article? Count it. Speak to a student organization? Count it. Advise a student? Count it. Speak at the Rotary Club? Count it. Tutor local kids? Count it.
The purpose of all this counting is to impress whoever might look at it and think “Wow”! It’s all about self-promotion and self-validation.
The root of this narcissism is insecurity. We want to feel good about ourselves so we build resumes that become our coats of armor. We walk around comparing our coats with others, currying favor with those whose coats are more beautiful and looking down at others whose coats are less impressive. We hardly notice people without any coats at all.
Somewhere along the lines we become inordinately self-absorbed. If we are upwardly mobile professionals, we spend large amounts of time making sure that our resumes include every act of achievement and service so that we will be recognized and rewarded. We think it's all about climbing a ladder to the top.
We forget the wisdom of downward mobility: the wisdom of being immersed in daily life itself, being present to others in a non-anxious and caring way, without needing to be famous. Our god becomes recognition not goodness.
We are taught to think this way by authorities who also think in this way, and tell us that we must act this way in order to succeed. They seem successful to us, and we take their advice. And of course success itself is reduced to quantifiable realities, to numbers. It’s all about points, and the general idea is that the person with the most points wins.
In academics these points take the form of refereed publications. The person with the most books and articles wins the battle. Other areas have other measures. Money is a big one. Good work is rewarded with high salaries, and the whole idea of being rewarded becomes an obsession. Our feelings get hurt if people don't pay us for our achievements.
I like to think that Jesus was not much interested in this kind of success. To my knowledge he didn’t keep a resume. Nevertheless, some Christians treat the New Testament as a resume: that is, a documentation of his achievements. But interestingly, this resume is all about stories, not numbers.
Was Jesus successful? I don't know. I'm not sure how high his salary was, but I think he was a good foot washer: "So he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him." (John 13:4)
He talked mostly about how the kingdom of God on earth has everything to do with presence and almost nothing to do with bean counting -- unless we are counting the numbers of people who are unemployed, or uninsured, or marginalized. Jesus knew that people are not beans to be counted; they are much more alive and important than that, and their worth is immeasurable.
What's the upshot of all this? It probably doesn’t mean that we can eliminate resumes altogether, although that might be a good idea. But it does mean that resumes must be re-envisioned in more relational and humble terms, complemented by something deeper and more important: being wise and compassionate and free, moment by moment. In a bean-counting culture it is very important to know the limitations and sometimes sheer irrelevance of adding things up, of keeping lists of accomplishments. The real accomplishments are momentary and it's enough that they add just a little beauty to the world and the ongoing life of God.
Has there been a moment in your life when you have lived with wisdom or compassion or creativity? Has there been a moment when you have said Yes to life and to love? If so you have been very, very successful; and your activity has become infinite in the very heart of God. You are a tremendous success in the eyes of the holy; no documentation needed. And the good news is: God doesn't even keep score.