Monday, January 25, 2010


"The danger of education, I have found, is that it so easily confuses means with ends. Worse than that, it quite easily forgets both and devotes itself merely to mass production of uneducated graduates -- people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade which they and their contemporaries have conspired to call “life.”

"A few years ago a man who was compiling a book entitled “Success” wrote and asked me to contribute a statement on how I got to be a success. I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a success in any terms that had meaning to me. I swore I had spent my life strenuously avoiding success. If it so happened that I had once written a best seller, this was a pure accident, due to inattention and naivete, and I would take very good care not to do the same again.  If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was simply this:  Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every  shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success."

-- Thomas Merton
Love & Living
edited by Naomi Burton Stoine and Brother Patrick Hart
Farrer Straus Giroux. 1979 page 11 (in the chapter “Learning to Live”)

[I think I may have this quote somewhere else on louie, but it bears repeating.]


  1. Beth - this is a marvelous quote.

    Thomas would be proud of me - I am doing my best to avoid "success."

    PS: I will be installed as "Acolyte" March 1st. I am not sure if this is success or not...

  2. it sure takes the pressure off, doesn't it?

    a couple of days ago there was a longish article in the NYTimes about how high school kids are getting sick, etc., because of all the AP courses that they think they have to take to "succeed" in college. good grief! are we mad?!

    not sure what an acolyte is, but it doesn't sound like top dog, so probably wouldn't put you in the success column :-)

  3. A quote for the front page of "The Wall Street Journal", that last sentence. Being a guy, I still sometimes feel like I'm less than what I should be as a breadwinner, but money costs too much.

  4. Thanks for finding this quote. This is the one I've been searching for, for quite a while.

    When you get "success" in your head, you will become like a possessed person, chasing (mentally and physically) any number of "important" markers and goals. The simple life and success are incompatible. When I say "simple life", I mean the spiritual life.

    Merton, being so far removed from the world, had a unique perspective. His insights are timeless.

  5. Yes, Merton was removed from the world in the sense that he did not have to compete or prove himself in any way, and that probably gave him a unique perspective on the success-madness that our culture thrives on.

    It truly does compromise our souls.

    Recently a young person that I know said, "I hate our culture". Everyone looked at her as if she blasphemed God. I admired her for the courage and honesty that it took to say those simple words.

    Even though Merton was mostly physically isolated in a monastery, he was very much aware of the madness of "the world", and directed much of his writing to a critical assessment of that madness.

  6. I just finished an employee development class this morning on motivation and how to be successful. I kept thinking about this Merton quote but couldn't work up nerve to say it (thought I would be perceived as a smartass). We were told about how important it is to be dynamic: I was just telling my wife a couple days ago how I had learned from working in corporate America, when they call someone "dynamic" it means a %$#*!@! of a *#$@!)*!!!

  7. It is all brainwashing, if you ask me. Turning us all into mindless robots to feed their profit machine.

    I hate being told that I should be more outgoing and dynamic. Being an introvert, it goes against my nature. I have nothing against those who are naturally outgoing - but forcing extroversion upon those who are not so inclined borders on abuse, in my opinion.

    I would have been very tempted to quote Merton directly to such a gathering, feigning a tongue in my cheek. Whether or not I actually did it would have depended upon how much I needed the job.

  8. I couldn't stand it anymore yesterday so I e-mailed her the Merton quote - "I enjoyed your class in motivation today and plan on implementing some of the ideas I learned. Due to discussing this quote the past couple of days with one of my internet buddies, I kept having these words by Thomas Merton popping up in my mind during the presentation. I thought you might find it interesting as a counterpoint":

  9. That's a very gracious preface to the quote.

    Let me know if she responds.

  10. The scary thing, in my mind, about success is the idea that one has arrived, one is complete. Where does one go from success? Sadly, there is an expiry date one is not aware of and it was yesterday.

  11. Yep, the game is already over, yet we play on.

    These last few days I have been musing over the role of sin in our becoming. It seems that unless/until one has really gotten bogged down in their own traps (failures?), they really are never going to get anywhere. As if there is anywhere to get to.

  12. She thanked me for the quote and reminded me to have fun at work. I finished watching a movie yesterday called “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” which I knew nothing about (I got it because it had Richard Conte, bad guy of one of my favorite Noirs “The Big Combo”). I didn’t realize it was about a real person – Lillian Roth, a star who had it all and lost it all. Here is an interview with Mike Wallace (who smokes Parliament!) that touches on success,AA, conversion to Catholicism, writing, and dogs:

  13. Looks like that link didn't go thru:

  14. I know I'm beating this thing to death, but I just read this Emma Goldman quote about Americans, 1911, provoked to do so by a Plowshares activist:
    "That is the only god,--Success. As to what expense, what terrible cost to character, is of no moment. We have not far to go to verify this sad fact."

  15. Thanks, Manaus.

    The thing is: striving for and achieving SUCCESS is more or less universally accepted as something GOOD for us.

    It's refreshing to see it framed in different terms.

  16. There may be two sides to the success coin. The typical view of success is where one holds a goal in one's mind and that becomes primary in one's life until the goal is achieved.

    The other side of the coin is the type of life Merton and other contemplatives live. They also strive for a goal, but that goal is not one of acquisition but rather of renunciation or letting go in order to be closer to God.

    You could say that both sides can be successful but the goals, methods and outcomes are different. In fact, they are polar opposites.

    The contemplative could look at the typical individual that is chasing society's expectations and think this is a failed life, one where God is nowhere to be found. And conversely, the materialist could look at a monk and think they are nobody, going nowhere - the epitome of failure.

  17. Very good points, Larry.

    I also kind of like what Manaus' cheerleader (or whatever she was) told him: to remember to have fun at work. There is much wisdom in not taking ourselves too seriously.

    I was reading some of Lax's early writings last night, when he was looking for a job in NYC and getting the run-around from the New Yorker and other companies. How hard it was for him to fit in to the marketplace's expectation for what and how he should be as a writer. He ended up following his own inner callings, bumbling around in poverty for years, ending up as a quasi hermit on a Greek island. There were certain things central to his soul that he would not compromise. For one thing, he did not ever want to do anything that required "effort", and he refused to ever fly on an airplane. (I don't think the airplane phobia had to do with fear as much as to the confusion it did to his sense of space and place.)

    Now, whether or not he was a "success" is anybody's guess, but he sure became a writer to be reckoned with.


The Good Shepherd’s commitments to us

Photo (by me) from the Basilica of Sts. Cosmos and Damian, Roma HT to John Predmore SJ for the following: I would like to talk about God’s ...