What Madmen, Drunks, and Bastards Know About How to Live

“If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success…If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”

—Thomas Merton, Love and Living

fire starter

Photo Credit: Dean Ayres via Compfight cc

The January night was moaning with a cold-dark wind. And our fireplace was talking back in hisses and pops of disappearing wood.

When a small voice inside of me said, “Three years of fires in this fireplace, Kelly, and you’ve never just sat. You’ve never just watched.”

So I settled in to gaze into the firelight.

Yet a mind on fire can burn hotter than wood, can’t it?

Within seconds, my eyes glazed and my thoughts blazed—blog ideas begging for a keyboard, voicemails to be checked, books to be read, texts and emails to return, a world to be kept at bay, a life to be conquered.

The desire for success can mangle the beauty in almost anything.

The Success Deception

As a psychologist, I feel like I’ve been let in on one of the most important secrets in the history of humankind: success doesn’t make us happy.

Each week in the quiet solitude of a psychotherapy office I hear some version of this story: “I wanted to prove everyone wrong and I worked like mad to reach the pinnacle of my profession and I’ve got it all—the spouse and the kids and the house and the cars—and I’m still not satisfied.”

Peter Rollins has said success feels like Wild E. Coyote the day after he catches the Road Runner—it feels like, “Is this all there is?” and “What now?” Every lottery winner describes the same kind of despair, because they’ve stumbled onto success and its dirty little secret: no amount of success can make us happy.

I think joy and contentment may be available to us all the time, in every place and in every moment, but the search for success keeps us looking in all the wrong places. Because the search for success keeps us thinking about the future—planning, organizing, anticipating—while joy and contentment are the qualities of a mind anchored in the present.

Anxiety and stress are not only caused by fear of the future—they are also caused by coveting the future. The bottom line is, whenever we invest our mind and spirit in a moment not yet arrived, we pave the way for anxiety and stress and their close cousinsanger and depression.

The search for success robs us of this moment and replaces it with endless moments of yearning.

Every Bush is Burning

Perhaps Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it best when she wrote:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,

And daub their natural faces unaware.

If we can quit searching for success, we can start plumbing the depths of what is, right here and right now…

On a January night moaning with a cold-dark wind, the firelight danced in front of me. I struggled to be still, as I felt within me a storm-surge of just-do-something-for-crying-out-loud! It felt like panic and I rode that wave of ego and insecurity with one steady breath after another. The wave crested and my mind’s tide slowly receded.

I turned my attention to the fire. I turned my attention to the moment.

I watched as orange-purple tongues licked the air in every direction. I felt my cheeks tightened by heat, and I felt the coolness of the dark behind me. I saw shadows dance, and I smelled smoke like an ancient messenger. Somehow, the fire seemed to transcend time—present at the birth of the universe and enduring agelessly, warming hands before language and now warming hands that hold iPhones.

I felt time burn away, and without time there is nothing to aspire to, nothing to work toward. There is only being, and only one place to be: in this moment.

To Become Like Children Again

And I became aware of how timeless we feel when we’re playing instead of striving, and how foreign it must be for my playing children to have parents ranting about getting out the door on time. And I wondered, could all things become play if we sacrificed our “successful” futures at the altar of our ordinary—and extravagantly beautiful—present?

Could we forsake the compulsion to succeed in everything we do?

Could we turn every moment of work into play by gazing deeply into it and finding the beauty of the ordinary there?

Could we get lost in time, rather than losing our lives to time?

Could we run late because joy doesn’t wear a watch and giggling doesn’t always stop when we need it to?

Could we fail brilliantly if that’s what it takes to reclaim the awe and wonder of every person and smile and grimace and laugh and sob and breath?

Could we simply get messed up by the awesome-ordinary?

And could we take off our shoes and behold that every common bush is burning? 

Have you every been struck by the bottomless beauty of our “common” world? Share your experience in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

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Free eBook: My new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary reality of marriage. New blog subscribers will receive a free PDF copy, by clicking here to subscribe. The subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

Preview: My next post will be this Friday and is tentatively entitled “How a Little Anger Can Set You Free.” 

Other Posts Related to Mindfulness and Gratitude:

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Greg Thompson

    This sent me into an introspection that brought deep and quick clarity about myself. It coalesced a lot of experiences, arguments with God, and long seasons of prayer. It helped me understand more clearly where I am and why God has spent the past number of years stepping in and helping me realize what less of me and more of Him means.

    There is nothing wrong with being successful, the poison is in being driven by it. The disease in success is when you care more about what other people think of you, than you simply care about them as human beings. Success comes from doing your best, simply that, for no other reason than to do your best.

    Thank you for the spark.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You are welcome, Greg! And I think this statement is a great summary: “There is nothing wrong with being successful, the poison is in being driven by it.” Well said. Thank you!

  • unie

    I don’t think success is a problem. It feels good and wonderful to be able to accomplish something. It makes you feel like you have worth because you can break something down and win.

    I feel good and relaxed after I’ve accomplished something. Once I’m done, I step back and enjoy my handiwork. I feel like I’ve grown as a person after succeeding. Searching for sucess isn’t the problem, it’s how we glance over the impact of success just to find another thrill that can become problematic. Wanting more than you already have without first marvelling at you were given is the problem.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Unie, I actually agree with you in many ways. I cut out a 400 word section from the post that talked about what a good thing success is, when we let ourselves receive it and be surprised by it in the moment. As Greg said above, the problem is more with being driven to it. Thanks for this take on it.

    • guest

      I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success… such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.
      – Nikola Tesla

  • Ciiku

    I think that too much emphasis has been put in achievement of goals and not in enjoyment of the process.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Right on, Cliku.

  • Jennifer Koski

    “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” (Yeats)

    Earth IS crammed with heaven, when we have eyes to see.

    A time when I was struck by the beauty in our “common” world: A couple years ago a close family member committed suicide and life was NOT beautiful to me for a long while (it was also the middle of winter – bleak, gray, & cold). Then one day I was driving to the store (not thinking about anything in particular) when I turned onto a tree-lined street. Right before my eyes every tree I could see stretched forth their branches and seemed to be offering an embrace to me – it was as if each tree were a soul, acutely aware of me, with limbs outstretched in love and consolation. I caught my breath it was so beautiful & unexpected – what a surprise! I felt loved and comforted that day. (And before that experience, I always thought bare, winter, leafless trees looked so bleak & ugly – but now I feel the opposite – they were the most beautiful trees in the world to me that day.)

    • drkellyflanagan

      That is a touching memory and beautifully expressed, Jennifer. We don’t witness those moments if we’re rushing to accomplish the next thing. I’m glad you were a witness.

  • Jennifer Newell

    I want to look at this a bit differently. I think it depends on how you define Success. It is the definition that can make all the difference. If you define success as fame,
    wealth, position, and honors then I guess you are correct in saying, “the search for success keeps us looking in all the wrong places.” However if we look at the definition of success differently I think it opens up a wide variety of choices.

    If it is defined as:

    Success is the accomplishment of one’s goals. I think you would need to understand what your goals are and what is it you are trying to achieve. I would be further defined success as an acquired ability using special effort or great courage toward which effort is directed.

    If we change our understanding of the definition and we use that to drive to be successful in our marriages, families and our relationships, I think that alters the traditional meaning of success. So this is a more Focused Success. This is being successful at savoring the moments with our family and friends. It is being successful at capturing the mental picture moments of the joy in our children’s faces. It is slowing down the pace of life to be able to experience the excitement of your child’s A on a
    spelling test. Or noticing the sigh of relief when your college-aged child comes home and the pressure is off.

    I think we need to change our goals. We need to alter our view of success to not be
    about monetary gain, fame, or status position. Instead view success as the ability to be present in your family, marriage and relationships. It is in this alteration that you find true success because the goal is different.

    Years ago we had a vacation that altered our mind set of how to vacation. In the past it was about going somewhere to see something. It was about schedules and trying to get the most for our money. But this particular year, I was tired. So we rented a condo on the beach. We all slept in until we woke up. We had breakfast and headed to the
    beach. We stayed at the beach for a couple of hours until everyone had enough sun.
    We came back to the condo and we pulled out our board games and every night we sat around the table playing games, talking and laughing. We went out to dinner and would come back and watch a movie together. The electronic devices did not come out until the family time was over. We were very happy that week because we did
    not plan, or schedule. We played putt-putt and went out for ice cream spontaneously.

    To me that was one of our most successful vacations because we got the rest we needed, the family time to really connect and we enjoyed each other’s company. It was nice to have no expectations and we were able to take it moment by moment. To me when you can slow down and enjoy the ones you love you experience a beautiful in our common world.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jenn, Thanks for this. It would be fun to see a thread develop here about this idea of defining success. I definitely defined it in one way in the post. But we all have our own definitions, don’t we. It would be cool to see others chime in with their definitions of success!