Tuesday, January 31, 2017

“Did my best” doesn’t mean “Time to slack off”

Did I work hard for my success, or have I just been lucky? Have I always done my best? And will I tomorrow?

These ideas aren't fully developed, but here's where I'm heading: Looking back, I see that I have been astonishingly fortunate in life, but that doesn't mean I should rely on that luck to continue; if I want to continue being fortunate, I need to be diligent and alert to make the best of my fortunate circumstances. Similarly, if we think everyone is pretty much always doing their best, as Brené Brown and others say, that doesn't mean I shouldn't try to grow so that my 2017 best will be better than my 2007 best, say. And since I always like to think of what this means for those who follow Jesus, it struck me that the preceding is similar to the point that just because my past sins are forgiven, that doesn't mean I should just sin when I feel like it (Romans 6:1).

David Brooks writes in a 2012 NY Times op-ed column, “The Credit Illusion”:
You should regard yourself as the sole author of all your future achievements and as the grateful beneficiary of all your past successes.

As an ambitious executive, it’s important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it’s important for you to know that’s nonsense.

What does he mean by all that? I can’t improve on Brooks’s writing, but I can summarize: Looking backward, you should recognize that a lot of your success is more about pure dumb luck—being born to the right parents, taking a class from the right teacher/professor, etc.—than it was about your brilliance and hard work, as I’ve written elsewhere. But looking forward, you need to focus on what you need to do to make the best use of the advantages that have fallen into your lap.

A similar oddity applies to the concept that people do the best they can; Curt Thompson writes in The Anatomy of the Soul (2010) about his mother, orphaned at age three. He had been angered, he said, by his mother’s passivity and resignation, but as he listened to her with a willingness to be touched by her story, he began to weep.

As if the proverbial scales had fallen from my eyes, I saw that she had not simply chosen to live her life the way she had. She had done the best she could without anyone to attend to her heart, to her emotional states, to her distresses and hopes. Her anxiety, fear, and passivity were not intentional; they were her coping strategy. Beginning at age four, she had developed strategies to ensure she didn’t tick anyone off, and this eventually included God. It was the only way she knew to ward off the overwhelming feelings of desertion, and she had maintained this defensive posture into adulthood. She had not actively chosen this path but rather had reacted unconsciously.
Curt Thompson, The Anatomy of the Soul (xv)
It was not only Thompson’s mother who had done her best, he realized: “I began to see that I, too, had lived my life as well as I could. No longer was I so ready to condemn myself as being not quite enough.” (op. cit., p. xvi).

Brené Brown presented a more generalized conclusion: that basically, everyone is doing the best they can. MaryAnn McKibben Dana writes about this, summarizing chapter 6 of Brown’s Rising Strong. One of Brown’s big ideas is, those who agreed that “everyone is are doing the best they can” were also on her list of “wholehearted” people: those willing to be vulnerable, and who believed in their own self-worth.

One such person is her husband, who says life works better if you think that way.

I say it’s similar to the luck “vs.” hard work thing, because when we think about the future, we need to make the effort to do our best, to be our best selves, to step up and, as New Testament authors write, “make every effort” to be our best and to do our best.

Speaking of the New Testament, we find there a similar division in how we think about the past vs. the future: in John 5, we’re told that (Jesus speaking) “he who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come into judgment; he has passed out of death into life.” In 1 John 1 we read that “if we walk in the light…the blood of Jesus… cleanses us from all sin. …If we confess our sins, he… will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So we are forgiven.

But how am I to live today? I should make every effort to obey what Jesus said—not because I won’t be forgiven, but because I am forgiven and because I’m also adopted as a child of God, and hence I want to be like him: to be characterized by love and mercy and justice more than by intelligence or competence or good looks.

So looking back, I want to be at peace that I did the best with what I had and who I was at the time. Looking forward, I want to grow and change to become the best person I can be—the best husband and father and brother and son, the best employee and mentor, the best neighbor and friend. So that, in the future, “the best I can” will be better than my best was last year, or what it is today.

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