For as long as I can remember, I have striven to be successful. Even in the earliest years of school, I wanted to be first in my class, whether or not I actually learned anything. As an adult, I have sometimes cherished the prestige of a position more than I have been satisfied by the work. When playing a game, I play to win – and when I repeatedly lose at a particular game, I lose my enthusiasm for it and stop playing. Now when kept in check, the desire for success is hardly a shortcoming, but when the quest for success – we might say mere success – becomes an all-consuming passion, then it is simply idolatrous. But I have grown bored with the outward measures of success. True success is the natural consequence of a job well done, a commitment honored, an endeavor brought to fruition – in short, a life lived with personal integrity. Success is an outcome, a consequence – but as a goal, in and of itself, the quest for success is rather elusive – as often as not, a complete waste of time.
Like other human institutions, spiritual communities are full of people who are driven by the desire to be successful, whether at work, in their personal lives, or even at church itself. Perhaps you are someone who nurtures such ambition. Yet it is apparent that even those who are driven to achieve the outward signs of success come to church looking for “something more.” Men and women discover that, even with the accumulation of wealth and the achievement of fame, our appetites are never fully satisfied. Public acclaim and personal comfort never quite mask the sense that there is “something more” which somehow eludes us.
In the preface to his book of Yiddish poetry, Abraham Joshua Heschel aptly summarized his own search for the holy when he wrote, “I did not ask for success, I asked for wonder; and you gave it to me.” How different our lives might be if, in place of success, we too asked for wonder!
In more traditional expressions of religion, this sense of wonder may derive from the supernatural or a magical understanding of the miraculous. In our naturalistic faith, the sense of wonder is found in the everyday and commonplace. We speak of the “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” This transcending mystery and wonder is experienced in many ways – when we gaze upon a beautiful vista, when we are caressed by the excited touch of a lover, when our ears tune in to the songs of the birds or the melodious strains of a violin, when the poems of the heart tumble from our lips, or when the golden silence of creation surrounds us in meditation or prayer.
Success is elusive for most of us, especially when we set our sights too high, but wonder surrounds us. We are bathed in the phenomena and experiences that provoke our sense of wonder and awe, if we would only take the time to pay attention. As we wend our way through life, let us ask not for success but for wonder, assured that we will receive it in abundance. The universe is simply bursting with it!