Morning Prayers: Prof. Jonathan L. Walton Defines the Real Meaning of Success

My Mid-Life Crisis

“Life is short.  We don't have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”—Henri-Frédéric Amiel, 19th century swiss poet

I turned 44 over the summer. I am pretty sure that I am going through a mid-life crisis. Don’t worry. You are not about to see me in leather pants with an earring. There are no red sports cars in my future.

My mid-life crisis seems to be of another sort.  I’ve been reflecting a lot on the bigger questions of life. Questions that take me back exactly twenty-five years this week when I first stepped foot on the campus of Morehouse College. What are my plans? What am I supposed to do? Why am I even here?

It has felt somewhat jarring to be back in this mental space decades later, asking the same questions that many students are asking of themselves today. This is particularly true based on the perception of my current life.

By most accounts, I have “made” it. According to pretty much every metric, I am “successful.” Tenure at a prestigious University; a prominent pulpit; a loving family; supportive friends; high-profile acquaintances, colleagues, and congregants.

Successful. Achievement. Prominent. Whatever noun or adjective one wants to use, if you asked me twenty-five years ago about my life now, I would say that I hit the mark. But now I wonder what have I done? What have I accomplished?  Success by whose standard? Achievement by whose measuring tape?

Look at the state of our nation. Look at the leaders in our world. From Kim Jong Un in North Korea to Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. From President Erdogan in Turkey and our own Donald Trump here in the United States? What do these men share in common? They are all successful. They can boast of many achievements. They each have prominence. Yet, most interestingly,  they have each rode the winds of xenophobic violence and autocratic ambition to secure their success, power and their prominence.

Similar might be said of certain famous Christian leaders in this country like Jerry Falwell, Jr. James Dobson, and Paula White who have access to the White House. There’s “faith in the halls of power,” as sociologist Michael Lindsay put it. Or consider the other 150 “prominent” clergy that gathered this week in Nashville to release a public condemnation of same-gender love. While Hurricane Harvey wiped out entire cities, displaced millions, and claimed human and animal life in Texas and Louisiana, these “successful” and “well-known” ministers were more concerned with somebody else’s sexual choices. For men who claim to be freaked out by same-gender attraction, it seems to be a preferred topic of conversation among this group. “The lady doth protesteth too much, me thinks!”

These examples constitute the reason I find myself revisiting what it means to be successful. Because, as they reveal, there is no correlation between success, traditionally defined, and goodness. We can have one without the other—the former without the latter. And while, like most of you, I have spent the majority of my adult years trying to achieve a successful career, build a successful family, and attain a financially secure life, have I spent enough time considering what it means for me to live a good life—a life characterized by honesty, character, and, most importantly, kindness?  I cannot say for certain. Maybe I am not much different than those preachers with White House aspirations. Maybe my own Christian faith has simply been a costume to mask my own professional ambitions. For we all must remember, like anything else in this world, faith, too, can be a gimmick. Most notably when we deny that “those folk” could ever be us. 

But what I do know for sure is that prominence, power, and wealth can make for an insecure existence. These are all external attributes. They are determined by others and conferred by the culture. Yet kindness is an internal disposition. It’s a cultivated character attribute that says as much about its author as it does its target. Kindness is when the divine presence in me recognizes the divine presence in you. Kindness causes us to see one another not as competitors, but as kin. And kindness helps us to have peace internally, even when circumstances are not the best externally.

Is this why we witness successful and prominent people who are in constant need of affirmation and affection? Those who have money in their pocket, but are morally bankrupt. Those who have people all around them, but walk alone. Their soul’s diet lacks the milk of human kindness and sustaining bread of compassion.

A few years ago I was talking to a friend about raising kids. I shared how as one who grew up playing sports, I have always viewed life as a competition. We win by outdoing someone else. We achieve by outperforming the field.

I can still hear the pity that came through in her reply. “Jonathan, you cannot allow your sense of value or worth to be in relation to someone else.” She went on to say, “I pray my daughters will do their best, cultivate their craft and pursue their dreams because of their own internal passions.  Not because they have embraced a fickle external standard.”

And this is what I’m thinking about this year. This is what I invite the community here at Harvard to consider with me. How do we redefine success? How do we shift our focus from what we might achieve professionally to who we ought to become personally?  How might we spend less time thinking about what we might accomplish, and more time thinking about what it means to just be compassionate, kind, honest, and true.