I recently read a book about the fall of Rome that for once was actually about the fall of Rome. It detailed the very last emperors of Rome and how the entire empire collapsed, leaving only shattered remnants in the peninsula of Italia. Previously I'd read of the first invasions, of how Rome's once mighty status collapsed, and so on, but it was nice to find something about the actual end rather than the beginning of the end.
Called The Fall of Rome: A Novel of a World Lost by Michael Curtis Ford, the book was pretty entertaining and interesting, and I've read several of his ancient history novels. What really stood out in my mind, however, was a sequence in the second third of the book, an encounter between the main character Odoacer (who became King of Rome as it fell) and a hermit.
Odoacer had a rough life. He excelled at leadership and tactics, he was a great warrior, but he kept backing the wrong guys and over and over again he was defeated through circumstance, treachery, or misfortune, and he was feeling pretty awful. The hermit gave him some words of wisdom in the novel and while these words are fiction, they were particularly wise and interesting to me.
If you're familiar with the Bible at all, you probably know one of the parables Jesus taught as recorded in the gospel of Matthew 25. In brief, it tells the story of a powerful man who entrusted three servants with money (called "talents,"). Each talent was a significant sum of money; worth about 6000 drachmas, or roughly sixteen years wages. In America, that averages out to around $800,000. Each servant was given an amount equal to what the master believed they were capable of properly handling while the master was away. He told them to invest the money and further his fortunes.
When the master got back, he checked on his servants, how well had they handled their money and their responsibilities? Well the first doubled his money, an incredible display of skill and luck. The second had also doubled his money, but the third had a different story. He didn't invest or attempt to do anything with his talents, he buried the money and gave it back when the master returned. This man was hurled into punishment and misery for his failure to follow orders (and for insulting the master as well).
So far so good, a story of obedience, service, gratitude and the consequences of misusing what we've been given to work with.
But the hermit had another servant in mind, one not in the scriptures. He proposed a fourth servant, another man given a talent. This servant, he said, invested the money and failed, producing no return. He had to come to his master and admit that he'd tried, but failed. Now, given the picture we're given of the master in this text, he seems like a pretty lousy guy, but the hermit suggested that the response from God to failure was different than you'd expect.
Failing, he said, was no sin. God doesn't care if you succeed He cares if you obey. If you try and fail, that doesn't make God unhappy, it makes him very pleased because you tried. If you give your honest best and try to serve God, but things don't work out, God is happy. Because success or failure here on earth is irrelevant to a servant of God. Service is what matters, doing His will and bringing Him glory to the best of your ability.
This is a tough lesson to learn and live through. All my life I have tried over and over to find a way I can combine my talents (yes, that's where the word comes from) with a way to make money and I fail over and over. I work hard, I focus on doing the best I can, and yet nothing ever seems to come of it. I have definitely failed God as well, sinning through my life and at least on occasion deliberately defying Him to do what I wish instead. But most of the time I try to do what is right, whatever the cost, and that cost is very high.
I have limited health, I have few resources. I don't have a rich uncle or connections anywhere, I don't have a legacy to rely on, I am a poor man in a poor family and don't have a lot to work with. I have some talent in writing, art, languages, and so on, but have never found a way to turn that into any sort of living.
Failure is hard on a soul. Trying and falling down again and again becomes wearing. A few times it can be tough but challenging. A score of times it simply becomes depressing, corroding your will to live and try again. Hope fades away, dreams become cruel taunts, and in the end you wonder why you even wake up in the morning.
I seem to have a unique knack for being good at things nobody wants to pay for any longer. I have skills which seem to be outdated and unwanted. And what's worse, I face a culture which almost uniformly celebrates and rewards the worst, meanest, and most crude and salacious approach to business. Great works and significant, meaningful efforts are ignored or derided, but crass and filthy efforts become incredibly successful. Patrick O'Brian didn't see success until he was nearly dead, but Jersey Shore keeps getting renewed contracts.
I say this not to whine or seek sympathy, it would be pointless. I've had all the sympathy a man can stand before becoming resentful. What I'm trying to point to here is that I know what failure is like, more than most. More than nearly anyone. My whole life sometimes seems like one big mistake, and I used to lie awake night after night wondering why on earth I was even alive.
The truth is, I'm alive for the same reason everyone is, everywhere, always. We all exist, we all live and breathe for one purpose and one purpose only: to serve and glorify God. We were created to serve God, whether ill or healthy, strong or weak, stupid or smart, foolish or wise, successful or unsuccessful. Each and every one of us lives for that one driving, ultimate purpose.
Seeking anything else above that purpose will always lead to misery and confusion. Its like a train that looks around at all that beautiful landscape and wants to go exploring. Once you leave those tracks, you will be bogged down or even ruined. Losing track of that ultimate, overarching purpose means losing your way entirely. Staying on the track means you keep moving toward your goal. In the end, finally in glorification, you stop being a heavy, track-bound train and become a creature that can go and be everywhere, like you have always longed. Wanting that before its time is childish and impatient.
Yet even if you aren't a Christian, there are lessons here. That fourth talent brings up a very important point: winning or losing is secondary to how you play. If you cheat to win, if you break the rules or stoop to the worst approach to succeed, what have you accomplished, what have you earned? That money, that acclaim, that success is wonderful, but behind it all is a rot inside you that you cannot ignore, and it will inevitably taint your soul.
Lets say, for example, you betray agreements, lie about your opponent, pander to the worst aspects of society, abandon any attempt to address your job and the problems it is supposed to deal with, and work with people to miscount and inaccurately report the results of an election. You can win that way, but what have you just done? You've undermined the entire process of election, you've presented yourself to history as a scumbag, and you will usher in misery and depression the likes of which the world has never seen. Your lust for power to implement your schemes means you're not doing your job and in the end you'll be revealed for the failed incompetent everyone always suspected you were.
Sure, your sycophantic friends will always cover for you. Your allies and those who gain from your efforts will try to rewrite history and spin the truth into lies. But ultimately, like it or not, the truth does come out. Stalin had a whole government covering for him, and allies in the west like Duranty writing lies to protect him. Nobody thinks Stalin was anything but a monster these days, with a government that utterly failed its people.
Trying well and doing the best you can, yet failing, is part of life. And it does bring growth and wisdom. Yes, it brings sleepless nights, ulcers, sadness, even depression. But it brings learning and understanding as well. One of the biggest problems the right has politically - conservatives, etc - is the belief that success is a God-given reward for doing the right thing. That's a cruel lie. Doing the right thing, working hard, and being a good citizen can lead to nothing but failure, loss and misery. These days especially doing the right thing makes you look like a sap, a dupe.
Why work hard, pay your bills, and keep your mortgage paid off? Sometimes your best just isn't good enough, and in modern America, we've got a government working hard to reward you for not trying and punish you for working hard.
The truth is you can do your best and work hard as you can and everything can end up horribly wrong. In fact, I would suggest that it often turns out that way, especially in modern culture. Yet what you learn and how you grow as a person is a success in its self.
Financial and worldly success is a nice feeling in the world - I've had small glimpses of it - but it is always hollow and can even be damaging if it comes too easily.
Take writing. There are authors who had success and sales too early in their careers and their work suffers for it. There aren't any real "overnight successes" but some can be pretty close. And when that happens they don't learn how to craft their work properly, they don't learn skills, polish their writing, and worst of all their success leads editors to tend to leave their work alone - or at least the writers to ignore editors. Its selling, it must be right!
So their books end up monstrosities, poorly written and even lazy. Their work suffers, and their dreams and ideas suffer for it. How much better could they have been with more effort put into learning and perfecting their writing?
Or consider someone like Quentin Tarantino. His movies are pretty good and he does a decent job as a director, but they all suffer, each one more so, from a lack of proper editing. He loves to write clever dialog, but he gets too clever by half, too cute. I'm reminded of pulp writers who spent more time trying to come up with a witty or creative way of describing a situation or person rather than creating a good plot well written. The stories start to read like a series of cute lines packed together rather than a story.
All really successful movie makers seem to fall into this trap, of needing yet getting less and less editing. Imagine if someone had been overseeing episodes I-III of Star Wars, how much better they could have been.
Failure teaches skills, success can reward a lack of them. And is the world really better off for having 874 reality shows on television? They're successful, but are they making the world any better... or worse? Is culture and society really benefited by Paris Hilton finding a career based on a debauched lifestyle and "accidentally" leaked cell phone videos? Is the nation really better off because pastors have found they can build a career by saying what people want to hear and avoiding any talk of God and sin?
America is fixated on success, it permeates our culture. Success becomes the goal rather than what brings about success. Everyone wants instant, or very swift, gratification and success. We all want to have what we want as fast as possible. I become outraged if my internet connection is slower than normal, when I used to wait 5 minutes to download a file in the late 80s, amazed I could even do it.
But success is something that is hard to accomplish or it has no value. If I walk out of my door and suddenly am showered with cash and fame simply for existing, none of it has any meaning. Yes, its useful and pleasing, but it doesn't mean anything. It has no purpose or significance beyond simply making me happy.
And maybe in the end that's what God is trying to pound through my thick stupid head: you've bought far too much into the culture around you. And honestly, I'd probably be insufferable and awful if I had the success I sought for. I have a tendency toward arrogance that I fight every day. When I was younger, because I was a quick learner, school and life went very easily. I barely had to try to study or read and I'd pick up what other students were struggling with. And as a result I didn't learn much about hard work or trying to achieve things through struggle.
Thankfully my parents saw this and did something about it: my mom forced me to take piano lessons for years and I got pretty good at it, but I had to work hard every day practicing to even get there. That didn't come easily, not at all. Probably they could have done more to challenge me, but dad was always at work and mom had poor health too.
But its been a tough lesson, like I suppose all of them are. At least the important lessons.