The Quest for Success and "Enoughness" Part 1

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We live in a performance culture. The push to succeed begins in the cradle and dogs us to the grave. Many parents feel this deeply. A recent article I read recounts a sandbox conversation between two moms, one with preschoolers and one who had only recently discovered she was expecting: “You’re expecting?! How wonderful! Now, you’ve registered for pre-school already, right? You’ll need to get right on that. The waiting list is two years at all the right preschools, and if you don’t get into a good one, then any chance of getting into the right prep school is ruined - and if you don’t get him into the right prep school, then he’ll never get into a good college. And if he doesn’t get into the right college, he’ll never be successful and his life will be over...” – before it starts?! The poor kid’s life was mapped out, and he wasn’t even born yet – not to mention the mom’s life. She’d already failed and she hadn’t even begun!

But most of us don’t live in New York City. A vast majority live in suburbia, or perhaps have moved away from the city altogether and opted for a rural life. We have avoided such nonsense, right? Not so fast, kimosabe. Near my home in Eastern Washington state, a local newspaper reports that area public schools recently expanded to “teach” children as young as one month. And so as to avoid picking on the public schools, let’s not forget the homeschoolers. I mean, we homeschoolers do it ourselves. “Pre-school? We homeschool!” That’s different, yes? It’s more “organic.” (That’s a great word, isn’t it? Very vogue right now. Full of virtue signals.) And when does this homeschooling begin? One mom told me it begins at birth. You see, we are always learning…

That sounds different than the NY city Tiger mom’s story, doesn’t it? It does, of course, look a bit different. It is more organic, and the content of the homeschooling kid’s lives will certainly differ from their public schooling counterparts. But for the sake of my argument, follow me here: Both moms, the Tiger mom and the homeschool mom, are invested in the outcome for their child. Both are committed to doing whatever is necessary to see their child succeed. It’s only their definitions of success that differ.

The fact remains that regardless of how we choose to raise and educate our children, the pressure is on us to do it “right.” Countless books have been written to help us do it. We want our kids to be “successful,” and their success is inevitably attached to our own. This directional orientation toward success probably began in the cradle for us too. Success has become a cultural value, what Aristotle would have called a “commonplace,” and our society emphasizes it as a way to achieve happiness.

How often have you stopped to examine this idea? Does success lead to happiness? I can think of plenty of successful actors and entertainers whose suicides have made headlines, not to mention corporate executives and Harvard scholars. Regardless of our individual pursuits, the quest for success has touched each of us in one way or another. We all feel a need to be “good enough,” and that need drives us and informs both our choices and our behavior. Only our process varies according to our values. For one, "good enough” may mean a career, a successful business, a large bank account, and a fancy education. For another it may mean self-sufficiency, homesteading, organics, and living off the grid. For another still, it might mean raising godly Christian children who live virtuously and distinguish themselves from their peers by their good behavior. For me, it found an outlet in motherhood.

Early in my marriage, I rejected the quest for careerism to be a full-time, stay at home, homeschool mom. I was eager to “lay my life down” for my kiddos; yet, this didn’t preclude the ubiquitous human impulse to succeed. It only transferred it into a new arena. For me, successful motherhood meant full-time homemaking. It meant home births with no drugs. It meant home education. My approach to mothering has read like a page out of “The Labors of Hercules,” with every task I completed promising to bring me that much closer to the Mother of the Year Award. Where self-sacrificial mothering was concerned, I made sure that I could say as Paul did in his letter to the Philippians: “If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so…” (Phil. 3:4). Paul goes on to list his pedigree, ending with: “concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.”

Paul’s self-declaration comes at the beginning of his admonition to take no confidence in the “flesh” (v. 3), those things we do to secure our identity and make ourselves righteous (read “successful”). He tells the Philippians that all of those things, even the righteous and lawful ones, are mere vanity - distractions. In fact, I believe the word he uses is “rubbish.”

Here’s the problem with securing righteousness and identity – success – through performance: How much is enough? When have you “made it?” When can you consider yourself successful and your object achieved? Is it once you’ve birthed the kids naturally? Once you’ve breast fed them for 2-3 years? Once you’ve potty trained them (early!)? Once you’ve homeschooled through high school? Once they’ve gotten a high SAT – or a hefty scholarship at a great college – or a high paying job in the field of their choice? Once they’ve found a good spouse? Once they’ve adopted all of your values and are going about their lives like you went about yours? (There’s a loaded expectation…one bound to create love and relationship between you and your children. Insert eyeroll here.) What constitutes success in parenting? How much is enough?

Of course, I could ask that question of any career or pursuit. How much is enough? In my role as curriculum director at CenterForLit, homeschool parents ask me this in regard to teaching literature to their kids: How many books are enough? There’s currently a renewed emphasis on reading aloud to prepare kids for educational “success” and virtuous living. How much reading aloud is enough to create the kind of wholesome, literate family the movement promises? We are all looking to be enough.

This quest for “enoughness” is the effect of the law of life, which is really an extrapolation of the Old Covenant Law of God: Do this and live. “The Law says ‘do’ and it’s never done.” So says Martin Luther in his Heidelberg Disputation. Jesus articulated the Law this way: “Be ye perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This is the quest for approval and identity through performance and behavior, and it is never finished. Rather, it’s exhausting, deflating, and depressing, no? This is the very purpose of the Law. It is designed to discourage us. Really, it is designed to kill us. In 2 Corinthians 3:7, Paul calls the Law the “ministry of death.”

I can certainly testify to the effectiveness of the law to kill me in its iteration in all of the little “l” laws of parenting and motherhood. “Be ye perfect…” “Do this and live.” These words hold such promise. The only problem is they come with a qualifier: If. If you do this, then you will live. If you don’t, well let’s not go there. It’s scary. It’s death. And the Bible makes it clear that if you break the law in any particular, you have broken it all.  Never you mind the Herculean tasks you have accomplished; they count for nothing.

Truly, it’s not even necessary to appeal to the Bible to see the reality of this. Your conscience is sufficient to convict you. Have you never experienced a sleepless night because of your failures, or feared the reprisals that would certainly come – from your children, your husband, the ambiguous “them”? The Law demands perfection, not just an earnest effort. One misstep, and it’s all for nothing.

The fact that this law can be found in the nearly ubiquitous pursuit of parenting must be one of God’s severe mercies. For it is in this relationship, if none other, that the stakes are likely high enough to really matter. All of the other avenues to success: money, acclaim, even marriage, are molehills next to the monolithic mountain parenthood represents in the human psyche. The fact that children grow in self-awareness slowly means that parents are tempted to forget their children’s otherness. It’s often years before we notice that our children have been observing us when we weren’t looking. They see us, the real us we hide from others, and this gives them some powerful emotional leverage in our lives. Once grown, they have the ability to “render judgment” on us in singular fashion. If the practical task of parenting hasn’t managed to disillusion us regarding our sufficiency, this judgment may.

But it is this disillusionment that is most necessary for the elusive success we long for to be achieved. Without it, we retain our blind failures. Only when we are brought to the point of recognizing and admitting our insufficiency are we willing to lay down our egocentric quest for success to take up another’s. Like Paul, we discover that the road to success leads to Calvary, but upon arrival, we discover that the cross is already occupied and its occupant, who saw us when we were yet unaware, has satisfied the Law. He utters from the place where He’s been lifted up, “It is finished,” and those words put an end to our self-salvation projects. It is finished. Our success is certain because He has done it. Thank God the Gospel sets us free from the law, wherever it’s found. Because of Jesus Christ’s work, our failures do not condemn us, but only serve to remind us to look up.