There’s a real difference between our achievements and our fruitfulness, between our successes and the actual good that we bring into the world.
What we achieve brings us success, gives us a sense of pride, makes our families and friends proud of us, and gives us a feeling of being worthwhile, singular and important. We’ve done something. We’ve left a mark. We’ve been recognised. And along with those awards, trophies, academic degrees, certificates of distinction, things we’ve built and artefacts we’ve left behind comes public recognition and respect. We’ve made it. We’re recognised. Moreover, generally, what we achieve produces and leaves behind something that is helpful to others. We can, and should, feel good about our legitimate achievements.
However, as Henri Nouwen frequently reminds us, achievement is not the same thing as fruitfulness. Our achievements are things we have accomplished. Our fruitfulness is the positive, long-term effect these achievements have on others. Achievement doesn’t automatically mean fruitfulness. Achievement helps us stand out; fruitfulness brings blessing into other people’s lives.
Hence we need to ask this question: how have my achievements, my successes, the things that I’m proud to have done, positively nurtured those around me? How have they helped bring joy into other people’s lives? How have they helped make the world a better, more loving place? How have any of the trophies I’ve won or distinctions I’ve been awarded made those around me more peaceful rather than more restless?
This is different from asking: how have my achievements made me feel? How have they given me a sense of self-worth? How have my achievements witnessed to my uniqueness? It’s no secret that our achievements, however honest and legitimate, often produce jealousy and restlessness in others rather than inspiration and restfulness. We see this in how we so often envy and secretly hate highly successful people. Their achievements generally do little to enhance our own lives but instead trigger an edgy restlessness within us. The success of others, in effect, often acts like a mirror within which we see, restlessly and sometimes bitterly, our own lack of achievement. Why?
Generally there’s blame on both sides. On the one hand, our achievements are often driven from a self-centred need to set ourselves apart from others, to stand out, to be singular, to be recognised and admired rather than from a genuine desire truly to help others. To the extent that this is true, our successes are bound to trigger envy. Still, on the other hand, our envy of others is often the self-inflicted punishment spoken of in Jesus’s Parable of the Talents, wherein the one who hides his talent gets punished for not using it.
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