Confession #84: It’s Time to Redefine “Success”
Two scenarios. One question.
Scenario 1: A boy grows up in the countryside of Haiti and never goes to school. When he is older he takes over his family’s farm, gets married, and has two children. He is a good farmer and is able to supply enough food on his land to feed his family plus sell some to make a small monthly income. The man doesn’t have a nice house, has no more than a few pairs of clothes, and doesn’t even own a cell phone. But he has enough money to send his children to primary school and his family is happy.
Scenario 2: A boy grows up in the heart of the city and attended a very prestigious school all his life thanks to the financial wealth of his parents. When he gets older he is able to move to America for college and has the opportunity to explore many other developed countries. Once he is older and married, he returns to Haiti to start and operate a large and successful hotel. He owns a big house, a luxury vehicle, and owns all the latest electronics.
* * *
We were recently asked to complete a survey sent to us by a college senior in order to help her write a paper about Haitian culture.
Since moving to Haiti, we’ve done this a few times- online interviews for high school and college students. They are typically all the same and usually ask all the same questions:
What called you to Haiti?
What does Haiti need the most?
How has the earthquake changed Haiti?
This one, however, was different. The questions, well, they weren’t so generic as the ones we have received before.
As Hunter sat and attempted to answer her questions one night he said, “I am skipping over at least 10 of these and leaving them up to you. I just don’t want my brain to have to think so much.”
She asked us questions like:
How are gender roles perceived in Haiti?
Is change considered positive or negative?
How do individuals “know” things? (e.g., are people encouraged to question things? are they encouraged to master accepted wisdom?)
What values do people in Haiti have?
Talk about the need to ponder.
One of her questions was: What is the criteria for individual success? (Hence my two scenarios above.)
Hunter and I had our opinions, but before putting them down on paper we thought it would be interesting to take this one to the teens at Emmaus House. After all, they are young adults in the making. They are at the age where individual success is something they all are striving to obtain. Success will look different for all of them, and that is okay. But do they see that as okay? Do they realize that success can be measured differently or are they all reaching for one standard that may or may not be obtainable by all?
So we asked them.
During the first go-around, we made the mistake of exchanging the word criteria for the word measure. In other words, we asked them: In Haiti, how is individual successes measured?
They didn’t understand. They took us literally. Too literally.
“Four percent,” one of them answer aloud.
Realizing they thought we were (in some way) asking what percentage of the Haitian population was considered successful, we rephrased the question.
In Haiti, in this culture, what do you believe makes a person successful?
(Cue the crickets.)
We had no idea this was a tricky question.
So Hunter shared the two scenarios above and asked them which man turned out to be more successful in life?
“The man with the big business,” they all agreed in unison.
Then one of them spoke up.
“You know, in Haitian culture the big business man would be the most successful. The more money you have the more successful you are. And people here, they don’t care how you got the success either. If you had to do bad things to make your money, people don’t see that as a bad thing. Success in Haiti is just that you have the money, not how you earned it. And I don’t think that is good.”
Just as in America, success here in Haiti is often equated with financial prosperity.
Where this becomes problematic is that 80% of Haiti lives in poverty, 60% in abject poverty. And if $ is the only determinant by which we measure one’s success, does that mean 80% of the Haitian population is living unsuccessful lives?
I don’t think so.
Take the man in scenario one for example. Poor, uneducated, and a farmer- by Haitian (and/or worldly standards) this man is unsuccessful. Yet he works hard, loves his wife, raises his own children rather than sending them to an orphanage, and even has enough money to send them to school. Will he ever be rich? No. Will he ever see the world? No. Will he ever even open his own Facebook account? Probably not. But he is a father. A husband. A provider. And he is an example to his community of what a real man does- works hard and leads his family. In my eyes, he is living a very successful life.
I say this- that this farmer is living a successful life, but I wonder how many Haitians would agree with me. Better yet, how many of us Westerners would come into this country, see him tending his fields as we drive by, and make the presumption that he is living an already fulfilled life? Or, would we jump the gun and feel sorry for him, assume he is unsatisfied, and think of ways to offer him our aid?
Let me just go ahead and cut to chase here:
In Haiti, a majority of the country will never meet the world’s standards of success, yet a majority of Haiti assumes that the world’s standards for success are the only standards. And when the world’s standard for success is literally out of reach for the bulk of a nation, this is when you have a hopeless people.
Internet, Facebook, TV, and the affluence of Westerners living and visiting Haiti these days all have played their part. We must confess, we have all (unknowingly) helped to teach them what our success looks like in the rest of the world. Now they all measure their lives up against ours.
I see this everyday at Emmaus House. Our teens all want success- not the success of the farmer, mind you, but the success of the big business man. And that makes training our teens very difficult because not all of them will be big business men, but does that mean they will necessarily fall short of success? No. Absolutely no. But do they believe that? Do they have hope in that? I don’t think so. That isn’t what their culture tells them at least.
I think it is time that we start to redefine success. First, perhaps, in our own worldview, and then as we serve others (like in Haiti) we can help be the example and redefine it for them as well. Because, to me, hearing a bunch of Haitian teens say that they can’t be successful if all they have is a family, a home, and life’s basics (like the farmer) when they grow up is unacceptable.
Now I am all about the dreaming BIG. Just check out my last post. This is not a blog about how we need to teach people to reach for less or anything. What I am trying to say is this. Simply this: When we define the success we are trying to obtain in our own lives, the success we portray to others, the success we judge others may or may not have, and the image of what true success looks like to those we serve, let us always measure it with Christ’s standards and not the world’s.
Let us remember that Christ was a simple man. Homeless even. Let us remember that he lived as a servant and full of the Spirit. His possessions were minimal. He had no earthly home. And if Christ is our ultimate example, then why are we measuring our successes based on worldly standards?
I pray, somehow, I can be that example to the teens at Emmaus House. And wherever I may be a hindrance, I pray that God will bring that to light. If I am the reason in which they believe they can never be enough, never be successful, unless they have _____________________, or they accomplish __________________, or they become ______________________ then I am failing them.
Big business man or farmer- who is considered more successful?
One year from now, I am going to ask our teens this question again. I pray that in time they will begin to see that both men are successful. And they too, no matter what they do, as long as they are doing it to bring glory to God, can be successful too.