The true measure of success

By Lisa Powell

The first sermon I preached was during college, inspired by 2 Timothy 1:12: “I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust.” The sermon centered around the idea that the only measure of success worth pursuing was intimacy with God. I might not measure up in any of the categories de­­emed valuable by society but I would be unashamed because that was not Christian success. At the time I probably felt most acutely the pressure to get married and have children, as I understood this to be the mark of success for women in the culture in which I was raised.

Today’s measures are more middle class and middle aged: rank, income, excelling children, diversified retirement accounts and new publications to my name. Despite my passionate assertion at 21, my values have not entirely withstood the force of a society that places ultimate value on production rather than relationship.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our measures of success recently as COVID-19 has radically changed the educational landscape. In the midst of a global crisis, our students packed up their belongings and moved away from campus, maybe to homes and families well equipped to accommodate them and their ongoing online courses — or maybe not.

This academic year, St. Ambrose University’s theology department has offered The Catholic Messenger monthly installments of the department’s new signature course “Just Theology.” Weeks ago all our faculty were forced to reconsider what it means to teach Christian justice in a time of upheaval, uncertainty and fear. Educators the world over are also asking themselves and each other: what are just or ethical expectations at this time? What learning outcomes matter? What does it mean to be a successful student in this class at this moment?

I’m proud that St. Ambrose has adopted a generous pass/no pass policy for students this semester, which will surely ease some of the stress and pressure around grades for many of our students. St. Ambrose also quickly issued a statement after its decision to move all classes online that it will refund room and board for the remainder of the semester, even though operating budgets were established with that revenue in mind.

These responses are just. And so are all the efforts to accommodate the differing needs of our students. These adjustments acknowledge the full humanity of our students, that they are more than minds that produce objects for evaluation. Their access and schedules differ radically: some are parents with kids at home all day with them, some are caring for younger siblings while parents are still working. Others are sharing computers with siblings or children or parents now working from home. Some are working long hours because of loss of parental income or at their family’s business. Some no longer have bedrooms at home and some return to spaces of trauma and abuse.

We are endeavoring to respond with compassion, with adjusted workloads and different assignments to accommodate not just an online format but the lives our students are living now, as best we can. We are trying to foster much-needed community with flexibility. Of course, our students have always had differing needs, schedules and access and we should always be endeavoring to affirm their complex lives through flexibility and compassion. This too is justice.

Disability activists have been trying to get us to hear this for decades. The disability community has long been warning us about the dangers of evaluating human worth on productivity. And Jesus did too, in his own way. He showed us God’s preference for those that society doesn’t value, the nobodies. He condemned wealth, elitism and worldly measures of success. Jesus didn’t have a home; he was dependent upon the care and support of others; he rejected social expectations to marry and bear sons. He demonstrated the power of the powerless and the ultimate worth of the least of these.

The abrupt halt to the economy, the stay at home orders and the proliferation of Zoom conferences the world over, have exposed our collective system of valuation to be shallow and worthless. Today we are living in Jesus’ parables. The seats of honor are offered to the tireless grocery store clerk and the ER nurse in a homemade mask. We are the man who tore down barns to build bigger ones to store up even more for himself, whom God called “You fool!”

And we are the rich man tormented in loneliness contrasted to the beggar Lazarus, who is cozied up on Abraham’s bosom. May this trauma shake us out of the capitalist trance that measures human worth by productivity and awaken us to the invaluable worth of intimacy and connection. Our hunger for relationship is exposed and insatiable. The titles and hierarchies of success grow transparent. We sit agape, in awe at our shared humanity. May we stay awake and, like the wise bridesmaids, be alert to recognize Christ, the groom, in the face of each other.

(Lisa Powell is associate professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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