Dear Museletter Subscribers – I'm back! I appreciate your patience in the first half of the year when I have been more concerned about Linda than about writing. Her treatment is progressing very well. Seven weeks of radiation/five days a week. No substantial side effects. Sooo, here is a new edition that is actually a debt I have to a hugely influential person in my life.
A FRIEND GONE, A LUNCH REMEMBERED
NOTE: Earlier this year, on May 8, a great man named Dallas Willard died. You may have read his book, “The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God”-far from his first and hardly his last, but lodged in my mind for terms such as “consumer Christianity” and “bumper-sticker faith,” as he argued for assent to God in all things here and now-and not just hope for a hereafter.
I've said more than once that if I could have one spiritual guide alongside me in life's deeper waters, it would be Dallas. Lecturing at prestigious universities or lingering over a table to hash through the big life questions, in every true sense, he was a teacher.
In Dallas's memory, I have dusted off and revised an account of our lunch together two years ago, a conversation about success and significance-and the next life-and as I do, two things come to mind: One, for Dallas the idea of significance was impossible apart from an awareness of heaven, of “more than here, more than now.” And two: There will be more meals together in the next life.
Success in midlife, Dallas and I agreed, is a paradox.
“Success,” I observed, “seems to surface more demands than it satisfies. Over and over you'll hear people at the peak of their power say they'd reached pinnacles even higher than they'd hoped for and that the satisfaction-surprise-continually fell short.”
In a New Yorker magazine piece that I had read, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Latin America's greatest writer, frames that fall-short effect in his personal account of life as an aspiring young writer in Columbia: scraping by on borrowed food, borrowed books, and free drinks. Then one day, he says, he is published in El Espectador, a leading literary supplement in Bogata.
Uneasy about his reception, he seeks out a “chance” encounter with a leading critic. Instead of talking to Gabriel about his story, however, the critic hand-slaps his audacity: “'I suppose you realize the trouble you have got yourself into,' he said, fixing his green king-cobra eyes on mine. 'Now you're in the showcase of recognized writers, and there is a lot you have to do to deserve it. In any case, that story already belongs to the past,' he concluded. 'What matters now is the next one.'
” What matters now is the next one. . . . No basking, we tell ourselves. This goal's old already, stale-what's the new goal? Does a treadmill like this come with no stop button? Just as we reach an achievement, must it always seem to pop like a soap bubble?
As well as anyone I know, Dallas Willard understood the fleeting nature of success. Over lunch we worked on the critical role of faith that endures.
Dallas said, “Meaningfulness needs a framework to exist. People lose meaning with no heaven for a context, no significant relationships, no life purpose that might relate to their work. And with no context larger than day-to-day life, negative feelings take us over and eventually drive one to some kind of crash.”
He went on. “One of my favorite stories,” he said, “is about the dog races in Florida. They train these greyhounds to chase an electric rabbit, and one night the rabbit broke down and the dogs caught it. And they had no idea what to do with it. They leapt in circles, yelped and bit one another, totally confused. That's what happens to people who catch their rabbits. Whether it is wealth or fame or beauty or a bigger house, or whatever, they catch up with the prize and it makes no sense. It's a huge factor in finishing badly; and it's why people need a rabbit that won't break down.”
“Then do this for me,” I said. “Describe a rabbit that won't break down.”
“First,” he said, “it transcends the individual. For some people, that rabbit used to be family or the idea of leaving the world a better place. Maybe you heard the story about the guy in the Northeast whose textile factory burned down, and he continued to pay his workers because they couldn't make it otherwise-beautiful story. This man had a rabbit that won't break down, at least in this life. And then, of course, I believe people ought to have an understanding of eternal life, a context vastly greater than this life alone. That's the rabbit that can never break down.”
“Your rabbit metaphor works well,” I said. “But you always want that rabbit out ahead. You never want to catch it.”
“Think about what Paul wrote in Philippians; he's got a rabbit: 'Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on,'” Dallas said. “That's where you and I, all of us, want to live. I'd want to live there if I lived to be 90. I want to live there when I step from this world into the next one.”
“So visual,” I said. “In one brief step, crossing into that other life, which is eternal.”
He nodded. “And it's something we should be looking ahead to with confidence, the knowledge that paradise is in session right now. When Jesus spoke to the thief on the cross, he said, 'Today you'll be with me in paradise.' It's ongoing.”
Then Dallas said this: “The critical difference between success and significance is that success has more to do with outcomes I'm in charge of, while significance has more to do with outcomes I'm not in charge of. The beautiful thing about significance is that we resign the outcomes to God. We let a power beyond ourselves take care of them. Success focuses on my action, my control, my outcomes, whereas significance is found in a much larger context. I'm not running that context, and the step of surrender is crucial because surrender allows me to release the outcome.”
So What About You?
- Who is the wisdom figure in your life?
- Write a short paragraph about the ups and downs of success that you have experienced.
Be a part of the conversation by answering these questions in the comment section of my blog – simply follow this link and scroll down until you see the comments.