We sat at a rooftop bar overlooking the Vietnamese coastal city of Hội An. The sun had set, and colorful lights now illuminated the waterways, the narrow, bustling streets. It was hot and sticky – though far cooler than it had been at midday mucking about amidst the rice paddies.
We had spent the better part of the week gathering stories of a local farming community’s resiliency in the face of a changing climate, and now we were taking in the sights of the city itself. And taking a bit of rest, too.
Our drinks arrived. The three of us raised them, clinking glasses. “To a good week.”
A colleague and I had flown halfway around the world to learn from and about the community in which we found ourselves, back when I worked at a global development nonprofit. We’d met a freelance photographer there, and the three of us had spent the week filming, snapping photos and interviewing local leaders and community members.
The week had gone by quickly, though. We still barely knew one another and were sharing stories from our past personal and professional endeavors.
“So, how old are you guys?” This, from the freelance photographer.
An oddly direct question. “Thirty,” I’d said. (It had been true then.) My colleague said the same.
“Wow,” the freelancer replied. “That’s crazy. I’m younger than both of you and already way more successful!”
We paused, assuming there was a joke to come or a “just kidding, you guys are great!” But there wasn’t. Straight faces all around. We sat in an awkward silence, sipping desperately at our drinks. And the moment passed.
But I’ve never forgotten it. Neither has my former colleague. What a burn!
I can’t believe how much more successful I am compared to you two old men!
Never have I been present for a more egregious example of “saying the quiet part out loud.” We laugh about it now. But I think it’s also quite illustrative.
Because we all say the same thing. We think it, at least, right? How many of us look at others — friends, colleagues, people we’ve just met — through such a lens?
“I’m more successful than they are,” we say to ourselves (and definitely not out loud). We base our judgment on money, professional networks, personal accolades, physical appearance, family or simply raw power.
Alternatively, we’re tempted to look at folks with envy, wishing we were as successful as we imagine them to be.
Does this resonate with you? Do you find yourself constantly vying to be more successful in any number of ways than the people you encounter? Do you find that you pat yourself on the back when you deem yourself to already be more successful than the people around you?
“How crazy that I’m so much more successful…”
We cling to our imagined place on the successful scale, living in constant fear and anxiety that someone, somewhere will topple us. We view others through this poisoned lens, imagining their faults and our own in our quest to measure up to the world’s standards.
“I’m so successful” becomes “At least I’m more successful than you.” And on and on as we put one another down, as we trample over others’ perceived shortcomings, as we castigate ourselves for our own.
It’s no wonder St. Ignatius points to pride, honors and exorbitant wealth as the standard of the evil spirit. This constant scramble to be seen as the best, to feel like we’re the best — or at least, not the worst — is never ending. An arms race of honorable mentions: We can never have enough.
Look instead to the downward path of Christ, Ignatius tell us. Act against this poisoned system and instead embrace Christ’s standard of poverty, rejection and humility. In so doing, we come to a liberating truth: We are enough right now, as we are, God’s own beloved.
The constant scramble to look and feel successful is just a distraction from God’s all-encompassing embrace. When we flip the script — pursue a different standard — we find ourselves no longer locked in this battle for success but rather freed to rejoice in and share the giftedness of everyone we meet.
Eric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian. Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here.