Sunday, July 22, 2007

"making your way freely in the jungle" (success)

(Photograph of Robert Lawrence Williams sent to Merton circa 1960's)

A reader has asked for some Merton words on “success”. I know that there are more formal Merton words on success, but the ones that I like the best are from a letter to Robert Lawrence Williams.

Robert Williams was a young black tenor (born in Louisville) who, in 1964, asked Merton to write some poems on faith and brotherhood. These poems, the “Freedom Songs”, were to be set to music and sung by Mr. Williams at a concert to honor John F. Kennedy. Merton composed the poems, but they were not used publicly until 1968 at a tribute to Martin Luther King. A correspondence developed between Williams and Merton, discussing the legal issues surrounding the poems and music. The correspondence also developed into one in which Merton took a pastoral role toward Williams with Merton compassionately listening and sympathizing with Williams’ frustration with the Catholic Church and his struggles as a black American artist.

“I happen to be able to understand something of the rejection and frustration of black people because I am first of all an orphan and second a Trappist. As an orphan I went through the business of being passed around from family to family and being a “ward,” and an “object of charitable concern,” etc. etc. I know how inhuman and frustrating that can be – being treated as a thing and not as a person. And reacting against it with dreams that were sometimes shattered in a most inhuman way, through nobody’s fault, just because they were dreams. As a Trappist, I can say I lived for twenty-five years in a situation in which I had NO human and civil rights whatever. Anything I got I had to beg for in an ignominious way. But I also had luck, as some do. I may be a success of sorts, but I can tell you what it amounts to: exactly zero. Sure, you run into a lot of praise, but you run into a lot of criticism, blame, jealousy, hatchet jobs and raw deals. In the end, a successful person is no better off than anyone else, as far as real gains are concerned. He may have a lot of apparent advantages, but they are cancelled out by so many other things. Of course, I admit, some people are satisfied with success, a good image, and a fair amount of money. You would not be any more than I am. You are a different kind of person. For that very reason you cannot do the mean and ruthless things that have to be done in the jungle of contemporary life; you are not the kind of person that just ignores the rights of others. I hope I am not either. But that is the kind of person who is a success and goes places. So what I am trying to say is, if your dream of fame did not suddenly come true, you are perhaps a very lucky man. You will do it in some better way, and it will mean more.

“In the end what really matters is not race, or good breaks, or bad breaks (though these are certainly important) but who you are as a person. And if you have real quality as a person (which you do, let me tell you,) it does not matter whether the market is interested. The market does not know real quality, it just guesses sales value … It is when you are relatively indifferent to success that you will be able to
make your way freely in the jungle …”

(Letter to Robert Lawrence Williams, July 16, 1968, Hidden Ground of Love, p. 605-606)


  1. Thanks for posting this, Beth. Merton, being an outsider to much of worldly society, understood the attraction of success and its influence on our psyche. Qualities of character and integrity always were of prime importance to him. Whenever I get the urge to jump into the rat race, to chase the almighty dollar, I reflect back on Merton's sage advice and stay on my course.

  2. Merton was in the monastery and mostly cut off from the daily (and constant) hum - but he was deeply interested and concerned with what was going on in the world. I'm often astonished with how carefully and closely he guarded his reputation as a writer. But it's clear that he had enough distance to be able to see and judge the rat race for what it was/is.

    Yes, I think that "integrity" was central to Merton. And being faithful to the truth of one's own life. That concept, in itself, is loaded. The importance of solitude in coming to know that truth.

    Merton, in my opinion, had a way for transcending his ego without trampling all over it.

    Thanks for comments, Larry - they have a way of getting me going :-)


From Dorothy Day’s editorial in the Catholic Worker on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.