Who is the most successful person you know? Yeah, it’s kind of a trick question. The question begs another question: how do you define success?
I suspect that most reading this would tend to answer questions about success in terms of a moral ideal. Success is leading a good and moral life. Doing the right things for your family. Loving your children. Going to school concerts and coaching Little League. Doing “good” work in a meaningful job. Giving to charity. Volunteering at a homeless shelter. Most of us would likely not highlight cars or houses or private jets or jewelry. We might suggest that career moves that provide a comfortable living for us and our family reflect success but we would likely pull up short of defining it in terms of amassing great wealth, great fame, great power, or great pleasure.
And yet, that is exactly how we as a society define success. Our most “successful” citizens are famous, rich, and/or powerful. Few of us want to be so crass as to admit that we see success in terms of money, status, or authority, but take a quick look at the economics involved in gambling, “success” literature & consulting, elite universities, political elections, and our massive fascination with the lives of the rich and famous. Most of us claim virtuous intent but our money is chasing the American dream tied to fame, fortune, and/or power.
I wonder how many people define a successful person as “meek and humble.” Most of us enjoy being around people we see as meek and humble, but few would really categorize them as “successful.” Sure, they’re good people. Helpful and caring. Important. We need people doing the meek and humble work of showing mercy to those in need, right? However, when it comes to success and making things happen in the world, we know we need the “Type A” driver to get things done.
Of course, most of us are living at some point along the either/or continuum I’ve created above. Few of us live in the exaggerated extremes at either end of the spectrum but the contrast is helpful as we consider our own priorities and approach to “success.”
What is it to be meek? Our dictionaries define it as “gentle” and “submissive.” The word itself evokes an image of a quiet, timid, person who rests in the background, invisibly going about the necessary business of life. Curiously, origins of the word reference the training and discipline of horses used for battle. The Greek origin “praus” means “strength under control” and referred to strong and powerful warhorses willing to submit to control. The old English spoke of “meeking a horse” in order to harness its power.
In our world today, we have seen the expression “toxic masculinity” appear to describe men who use power or authority to control, belittle, or otherwise bully those around them to get what they want. Nietzsche coined the expression “will to power” to describe man’s propensity to dominate others through power to achieve his ends. Man or woman, power or authority used this way is disordered strength out of control.
Even though most of us recoil at the notion of a will-to-power domination of others around us, few of us will look at being “meeked” into the submissive yoking of our strength as a pathway to success. How exactly can the meek inherit the earth in a world dominated by others with a “will to power?”
Being meek is about harnessing your strength in submission to a greater purpose than your own. Meekness is subduing your desires in service of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. What if we defined a successful life as living virtuously? If meekness is strength under control, consider for a moment its role in how we live the seven virtues:
- Charity and justice – subduing self in service of others.
- Temperance – subduing my desires in faithful commitment.
- Prudence and Fortitude – subduing what I want right now or enduring discomfort for something more later.
- Faith and Hope – subduing my fears in the belief that things will work out
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.Matthew 5:29-30
We have been given the model for success and it does not mean that we have to retreat or submit to the rules of those who would dominate. It means that we need to subdue our self in service of greater things. It means that we must harness our strength and yoke it to a higher purpose.