When my youngest son was about three he got a terrible earache in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, at that age my son wasn’t doing a lot of talking, so we didn’t know that it was an ear infection that was making him cry until we got him to the emergency room at the hospital at 2:00 AM. The nurses there tried to ask him questions about how long he had had the pain, and was he dizzy, and so on, but my son simply couldn’t follow the questions. Emergency room nurses don’t like to have their questions go unanswered, and I, a tired father, did not like to have my son’s mental capacity brought into question. To lighten the mood and defend my son, I explained that many of the men in my family came to talking late. “In fact,” I continued, “I couldn’t put a coherent sentence together until I was about two and-a-half.”
“Oh,” she said, clearly relieved. “Well, there you go. And you turned out to be a success.”
I stole a glance in the mirror to learn what about my windbreaker and jeans said Success. At that point in my life I was a waiter with three unpublished novels in my drawer. My own opinion of myself stood somewhere perilously close to failure. And yet.
I have written a lot about success on this page, and for good reason. Success is that destination everyone craves but whose location remains an enigma. I spoke to a writer friend recently who had met someone whom she viewed as very successful. This other writer had published a half-dozen books to good reviews, sold stories to all the major magazines . . .. Success. But no. He hadn’t won the National Book Award. By this man’s own measure, he wasn’t a success.
The emergency room nurse who called me a success knew nothing about my resume. If she was responding to anything, it was likely my state of mind at that moment: I was going to clearly and hopefully with good humor show up for my son. If success is anything at all, it is surely nothing more than an accumulation of showing-ups. What else can we do? Wrestle some award from the hearts of the award-givers? Showing up may seem like such a small thing compared to glittering hardware on the mantle, but it’s not, especially when the one you must show up for is yourself.
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