Gratitude, Success, and Duty
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” For this dutiful opportunity, give thanks.
A tolerable portion of the Freemen Newsletter’s readers likely qualify as “successful,” under any ordinary meaning of that term. Even a college degree is enough to place an American in a fortunate minority, and of course, some of you are, or are training to become, lawyers, military officers, intellectuals of lesser or greater status, academics, or otherwise prominent.
It seems to me that success, defined in worldly terms, places unique burdens on gratitude. Those burdens arise from one primary phenomenon: success looks different from the inside than it does from the outside. Had you told me, five or six or ten years ago, that I would be presently studying at the best law school on earth (sorry, Yale), I’d have been a little astonished, a little awed, and probably rather jealous of my future self. Jealousy, in fact, is the special curse of highly competitive professions, like law and politics. It is always easy to find someone who is a little cleverer than you are, or a little more accomplished, who has clerked for the Supreme Court or knows this or that Senator, and so on. And it is very easy to imagine how much better life would be once in possession of the same measure of success.
But in fact, nothing important is very different for me now than it was five or six or ten years ago. Sometimes the weather is good, sometimes it’s bad. Some people are pleasant to talk to, some are mean, even if they’re important or famous. That’s not to say that “success” doesn’t change the way you feel at all; it does make you feel good about yourself. But you can’t make a living out of feeling good about yourself. You can’t feed your lungs on a tank of compressed snobbishness. In other words, there are differences between a fancy law school and an ordinary college, or my old summer job cleaning toilets, but the similarities far outweigh those differences. Some days I should like to go back to cleaning toilets.
So an expectation of self-satisfaction or power or prominence is not by itself a good reason to pursue “success.” “Success,” instead, is a means to an end. That end lies in doing good for others—the practice of moral virtue. It is a practice emphasized in last weekend’s gospel, the Parable of the Talents from Matthew, which explains the duties that accompany “success.” Indeed, the servants possessed of two talents or five talents are not successful by virtue of receiving that money; they are successful only insofar as they fulfill their obligations to steward and grow those allotments.
Thus “success” is reconceptualized as an obligation toward others. Viewed this way, it becomes a proper object of gratitude. For there is little or nothing in life so rewarding as right actions; so any opportunity to do more good, or to affect more people, is a great blessing and a great joy.
But this notion of success as duty has a laudable chastening effect, too, insofar as it recasts glory as subjection, and channels ambition to power into ambition to goodness. In other words, it is not “success” itself that is the object of gratitude, nor even the performance of good works, but rather the obligation to do good, an obligation inseparable from success, that rightfully demands thanksgiving.
This gift is great and frightening, awesome, maybe (in the old sense of the term), but it is a duty that must touch the life of every person you meet throughout this holiday season. As Matthew puts it, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” For this dutiful opportunity, give thanks.
Jonathan Meilaender is a JD candidate at Harvard Law and is concurrently engaged in a Master’s program in German and European studies at Georgetown University. He received his BA in Politics from Saint Vincent College where he was also Editor-in-Chief of the Saint Vincent College Review. @JMeilaender
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