Blessing #2: What Success Really Means

I have this fear of being a failure at life. And while I’d like say I define failure as being “disobedience to God”, more often failure in my mind looks something more like an unsuccessful career, a not-so nice home in a not-so nice neighborhood, or no retirement account. I can hear the voices in my head: “Oh, you’re stuck at that job? You live in that neighborhood? You make that amount of money?” Growing up in the home of the explosion, where millionaires have been and are made overnight, this sense of failure, at least for me, can have an almost suffocating effect.
“For me”…. I want to be clear about that. I’m not trying to say that people in the Bay Area are stuck-up snobs, thinking very superficially that life is just about money. I work with too many wonderful families who are incredibly rich and also so incredibly kind and personable that I can’t project my own insecurities on them…. unfortunately.
But let’s face it: between People Magazine and Playboy, there is this expectation to be…. perfect. Always youthful, always beautiful, always in control, always free to do whatever you want whenever you want. The Successful has replaced the Saint as a role model. I feel the effect and, as I said, it can be suffocating.
But sometimes, if I’m lucky, I get broken so badly that the circumstances in my life cause my insecurities to rise to the surface, and I can’t hide them – either from myself or others. And I look in the mirror and realize that I look nothing like the paragon of success the world has been force-feeding me. And I give up. That wall that kept people from seeing what my life really is breaks. And when it does, I find that it wasn’t the protective wall I thought it was that kept the cracks and fissures in my life hidden. Rather, it was a prison wall, keeping me locked up in the world’s lies.
The implicit message that is spoken when we exalt the rich, the powerful, those who are free to do what they want unencumbered by the constraints of family life, or the healthy, the successful, the young and beautiful, is that it’s only when you have these things and live this way that you will be truly happy. Have anything less and you’ve lost something. You are “less than.” People begin to be valued for all these external things instead of for who they really are.
Why am I saying all this? Because one of the greatest blessings of having a wife with a mental illness is that we’ve been forced to simplify our lives. We have to ask, for the sake of the health and survival of our family, and even my wife’s very life, “What really matters?” We’ve had to make decisions that accentuate what is truly important in life. Do we stay in the prestigious Bay Area and run the rat race, trying to pay overpriced bills and rent or do we take the leap, move closer to family, and work less, so we all have more room to breath? Do I force my wife to take on the task of watching our kids all day, even though she easily gets burnt out and stressed because of her illness, or do we reconstruct life in such a way that I really start taking more of an interest in my children and make more of an effort to know them and raise them, giving them both quality and quantity with my time? Do I remain childish, unkind, and sort of selfish with the way I talk to my wife because it’s the end of a long work day (that I put myself in) and I’m too tired to act like a Christian, or do I consider that, due to her illness, my words, how I act, and how I feel about our marriage can have either the greatest healing or damning effect on her? Do I work till I’m numb so that I can have the nice car, nice home, and nice neighborhood, but lose my soul, or do I give up these things so that I can have a not-so nice car, home, and neighborhood, but keep that soul?
Every Christian is called to follow Christ – to be a good father, husband, to make decisions that reflect a godly motivation and godly pursuits. But I think God knew I needed a little more prodding. The second blessing of mental illness is that it has broken me and our family just enough to let the light in, and I see with greater clarity what success and failure really mean.

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