Merton and Why I Don’t Believe in Success

I first encountered Thomas Merton (the famous Trappist monk and author of The Seven Storey Mountain) when I was a college freshman. That was a long time ago. I remember browsing over the books in the college library when I chanced upon a small volume whose exact title now escapes me. I believe it was entitled “Love and Living” or maybe it’s the other way around: “Life and Loving”. The author was Thomas Merton – a new name to me at that time. I took it out of its shelf and started reading. I guess I must have read only a couple of pages– it was the kind of book which was way above my head at that time – but one sentence leaped out and has remained with me since: “All my life I have tried to avoid success, and I have succeeded in avoiding it.” I believe I smiled when I read that; I usually smile when I am amused by an author’s wit. Little did I know that I would be returning to that remark again and again at many points in my life. It became something of a personal motto, and I’m thankful Merton wrote it. Thus, the name Thomas Merton attached itself to my memory. He was now a priority when it came to book-buying, and it was always a pleasure to find and buy a book by him.

One book by him which I bought at Daughters of St. Paul (now Pauline Sisters at Libertad) is Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. It is certainly not an ordinary book. To be sure, it doesn’t belong to the category of great books such as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Montaigne’s Essays; it’s more of a collection of random journal entries on whatever interested him, but some of his observations on life and society are pure gems. Take the following, for example:

“The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

In other words, Merton seems to be saying that to pursue success in the way it is ordinarily pursued today is to live in violence. It is to do violence to one’s soul. That puts the pursuit of success under a whole new category – the category of crimes against humanity! Here’s another one:

“Why then do we persecute ourselves with illusory demands, never content until we feel we have conformed to some standard of happiness…that is approved by magazines and TV?…. If we are fools enough to remain at the mercy of the people who want to sell us happiness, it will be impossible for us ever to be content with anything…. [The] need for approval destroys the capacity for happiness.”

Merton here, it seems to me, is saying that the pursuit of success – and the trappings of success – is not only a form of self-persecution, it is more often than not evidence of one’s slavery to other people’s approval. I can’t help being reminded of something I’ve read in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline which makes the same point: “We buy things we do not need in order to impress people we do not like!”

This article won’t be complete if no mention is made of my favorite Merton book: Contemplation in a World of Action. It’s a book full of radical ideas, a veritable eye-opener. One particular passage comes to mind. Here Merton presents a defense of monasticism the wisdom of which deserves to be heeded by many who have fallen into the success-trap:

“One of the ‘tyrannies’ of ‘the world’ is precisely its demand that men explain and justify their lives according to standards that may not be reasonable or even human. The monk is not concerned with justifying himself according to these standards. Today a man is required to prove his worth by demonstrating his ‘efficacy’. In such a world the monk may simply decide that it is better to be useless – perhaps as a protest against the myth of illusory efficacy.”

Whether or not one agrees with Merton’s advocacy of “uselessness” his exposé of “the tyrannies of this world” is worth reflecting upon.

I conclude with a famous question posed by Henry David Thoreau in his conclusion to Walden: “Why are we in such desperate haste to suceed and in such desperate enterprises?”

Good question. Why indeed?

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