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Success as a Fine Art

What boots it—what the soldier's mail,
Unless he conquer and prevail?
—From "Fate" by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Success in life is too largely and far too generally considered in the nature of special gifts or of exceptional good fortune, of some unusual provision or combination in some way, rather than as the simple duty and the obligation of all intelligent and aspiring people; that is to say, it should be held as the normal, and not the abnormal, condition. The defective classes in intellect or in morals are the only ones who do not rise to the level of being regarded under this obligation. The idiot, the lunatic, and the totally vicious are the special and exceptional in the great rank and file of humanity; and it is they alone who should not be held by public sentiment as under the law of success.

For even the chronic invalid may make such a success of character—the only permanent form that it takes—as to be a blessing, a benediction, and an inspiration to all who come near. Physical deficiencies or afflictions of any kind do not put one outside this law, because success is mental and moral and spiritual—a result of fine qualities of mind and heart, of energy and of striving—and is therefore not in bonds to physical or material causes. Success, then, is simply a duty. It is the obligation of the many, and not the luxury of the few.

One thing is for ever good—
That one thing is success.
—From "Fate" by Ralph Waldo Emerson

To achieve success is not merely the gratification of a personal ambition, not merely a selfish endeavor; it is a moral duty, and a very high responsibility. It is a personal obligation. Success is good. The traditional talk about failures being often better than success; the traditional feeling that the successful man or woman is, by that very achievement, more or less isolated from the average toiling, burdened masses of mankind; that, though success may imply a certain ability and keenness, its very realization is through some lack of consideration, some defect of sympathy, some self-centered power, that pushes on, regardless of those through whose ranks it makes its way—this conception of success is very far removed from the truth. To regard success as more or less synonymous with selfishness, is to degrade it from anything like its real significance.

No one has success until he has the abounding life. This is made up of the manifold activity of energy, enthusiasm, and gladness. It is to spring to meet the day with a thrill at being alive. It is to go forth to meet the morning in an ecstasy of joy. It is to realize the oneness of humanity in true spiritual sympathy. It is, indeed, that which one is; not that which he does or which he has. And so all our usual conceptions of success fall infinitely short of the genuine thing. It is not necessarily success to be rich, or famous, or even popular, in the general acceptation of that term. These attributes and accidental things may or may not accompany success; but their presence does not make it, their absence does not take it away.

It is as amazing as it is sad, that we go about so largely burdening ourselves with strivings that are of no consequence, and miss the gladness and exhilaration of living. No life is successful until it is radiant. The King of Glory is always ready to come in. Why do we bar the way? We cannot all live in palaces; but we can all live in the Kingdom of Heaven, and the material luxuries of the one pale before the glow and thrill and exaltation of the other. 'The contribution of Christianity to the joy of living, perhaps even more to the joy of thinking, is unspeakable,' says Dr. Drummond. 'The joyful life is the life of the larger mission, the disinterested life, the life of the overflow from self, the more abundant life which comes from following Christ...If Christianity can do anything, it can take away the earth. By the wider extension of horizon which it gives, by the new standard of values, by the mere setting of life's small pomps and interests in the light of the Eternal, it dissipates the world with a breath. All that tends to abolish worldliness tends to abolish unrest.'

The one great truth to which we all need to come is, that a successful life lies not in doing this, or going there, or possessing something else: it lies in the quality of the daily life. It is just as surely success to be just and courteous to servants or companions or the chance comer, as it is to make a noted speech before an audience, or write a book, or make a million dollars. It is achievement on the spiritual side of things, it is the extension of our life here into the spiritual world, that is alone of value. This extension is achieved, this growth towards higher things is attained, by our habitual attitude of mind. It develops by truth and love and goodness; it is stunted by every envious thought, every unjust or unkind act. The theater of our actions may be public and prominent, or private and obscure. Our conduct may be read of men, or it may hardly be known beyond the most limited circle. What then? Does not one require moral health, spiritual loveliness for himself, as he does his physical health, and not merely for display? One would prefer to be well rather than ill, if he were alone on a desert island. Why not, as well, prefer to be spiritually abounding, whether the world recognize it or not?

'For to be carnally minded is death; and to be spiritually minded is life and peace.' Here we touch the profoundest truth of life. All the jar, the unrest, the friction, the unhappiness of life are inseparably related to the material plane. 'To be carnally minded is death.' But leave this; live the 'life more abundant'; rise above selfishness and envy; rejoice in your neighbor's success, be glad in his gladness; love what is lovely, whether your own or another's: in short, be 'spiritually minded,' and at once there is 'life and peace,' at once there is success in its profoundest significance.

It is so possible to cultivate easy, cordial, friendly relations of reciprocal good-will to all whom one may meet. It is so possible to be glad in the gladness of other people; and, too, it is possible so to extend one's own life into higher regions that his happiness shall not be altogether dependent upon other people. He may come to realize the deep truth in the lines:

Seek not the spirit, if it hold
Inexorable to thy zeal;
Trembler, do not whine or chide—
Art thou not also real?

When one can gain this basis of actual reality in his life; when he can realize that first of all and above all are his relations to the unseen, his anchorage as a spirit to a spiritual world, developing his faculties as best he may—then is he prepared to be the truer and warmer and more steadfast friend, while yet less dependent on friendship than before.

The only success worth the name is the achievement of this high spirituality. With it, the beggar would be rich; without it, the king would be poor. This is 'the thing for ever good,'—the thing that may truly be called success.

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Lilian Whiting

  • Born on October 3rd, 1859 in Niagara Falls, New York and died in 1942
  • Author and journalist
  • Edited The Boston Traveler and The Boston Budget
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