The Curse of Success – The Gift of Desperation

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Life exhibits many ironic twists, but I think that our misapprehension of ‘success’ and ‘desperation’ have got to take top billing. The pursuit of success leads women and men into dire straights, while an exaggerated and misplaced sense of ‘duty’ propels them forward and blinds them from considering other alternatives. Whether or not you officially subscribe to the dictum, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ the chances are enormous that you’re acting it out in your daily choices. The problem doesn’t arise from the pursuit of success, rather, it traps us because of our definition of ‘success’. Imagine that a guy defines ‘success’ as being healthy, and therefore spends three hours a day, every day, at the gym. Is he ‘successful’? Perhaps, in his mind, he is, because he’s making himself as healthy as possible. He’s completely dedicated to ‘success’ as he defines it. But, is he really a success? Unless he’s a professional athlete, most people would have to say, no. Physical health makes up only a small part of living a healthy life. That odd definition of ‘health’ is what we might call ‘Synecdoche’: taking a part for the whole. There’s the curse of success: if you’re definition of success is inadequate, so will your pursuit of it be.

Consider the term that addiction counsellors use to describe someone who can ‘hold his or her liquor’ to the extreme: a ‘functional drunk‘.That’s a perfect example of success gone awry. Often, alcohol addicts are very proud of their accomplishments – being able to dring large quantities without apparently showing the effects – and often, too, their social network is completely supportive, praising the individual for his or her prowess. In fact, these same people often ridicule those who haven’t built their tolerance levels to such extremes. It’s the curse of success: ‘beating the odds’ until, eventually, the odds catch up with you. Without consequences, where’s the motivation to change? Without motivation, why would anyone do anything? There it is in all its illogical glory: success can often mean hurtling yourself into the arms of disaster.

Motivation to change can come at you from the strangest of sources. In fact, the longer you’ve been on a diversionary path, the stronger the ‘motivator’ is likely to be. For the addictive personality, it’s most often that moment of desperation when he or she suddenly realizes that the pattern of addictive behavior that’s been so carefully cultivated over time no longer delivers the goods. The pain may well be triggered by a significant loss: loss of a livelihood, loss of a relationship, loss of a cherished goal, or even loss of freedom (by incarceration), for example. It may come from any or all of these sources, or it may not. It may just as easily come at you from the sudden realization that everything you’ve worked and sacrificed for has left you empty and disappointed. It happens when that nagging feeling of ‘something’s missing’ suddenly breaks through into consciousness and you come to realize that it’s not just ‘something’ that’s missing, it’s everything.

Desperation – that searing recognition of hopelessness – represents the greatest pain a conscious human being can experience. It’s so much more than a physical agony (which can be borne if there’s a sense of hope), it’s the sense that the path that you’ve chosen to avoid self-hatred to provide meaning and purpose to your life has led you directly and inexorably to the point that you most feared. It’s led you to the loss of self-respect and the destruction of your self-image (whether or not other people are aware of it). Your chosen path has led you to an utter dead end, to the sense of desperation that only the dying can know.

That’s the very reason why desperation is such an amazing gift! Beyond all other motivators, it forces you to break through the walls of denial that you’ve built up around yourself: all those ‘things would be alright if only’ and ‘things will be alright when’ thoughts. Reality has a nasty way of dispelling the clouds of wishful thinking. At the same time, no one is more reachable than someone in despair; no one is more teachable. It’s amazing how easily humility rushes in once the levies of self-delusion and denial have been breached. If you survive your encounter with despair (and, tragically, not everyone does), humility will invariably cause you to cry out that miraculous one-word prayer that’s always answered: ‘Help!‘ It opens the only crack in your defenses that God (who or whatever you imagine God to be) can use to plant the seed of hope in your heart.

Every person faces his or her own moment of truth, when ‘success’ fails and desperation takes over. Some hit that wall much harder than others, but everybody, sooner or later, hits it. We’re not taught about it in school. It’s not very often something that we’re trained in, especially in our NIMBY [‘Not In My Back Yard’] society. The wise will experience the gift of desperation and recognize it for what it is. The humble will experience it and seek help from God or others. The rest will refuse the gift and live and/or die in misery by choice, complaining all the while about how unfair life has been. Which group do you belong to?