True Success

To Be 95 and Happy


Maud-Key Rock on her 97th Birthday
December 10, 2003

What is true success in this life?

As I head toward three score and ten years, I have been wondering how to evaluate the nature of true success. But I may be too young. It may be that the question is so fundamental that only at the end of life would one have the experience to be able to provide an answer. Realizing this limitation, I have, over the last few years, sought out mentors and inspiring examples.

I have always been attracted into intimate friendships with the old and wise.  Not the least of these was my own mother, Maud-Key Shelton Rock, who lived to the age of 97.  In her last years, I helped her write her autobiography, The Song of My Life, in the last chapter of which she attempted to account for how she had managed to have such a happy life.

But there have also been the timeless masters. One is Boethius, a great thinker of the fifth century AD under the Christian Emperor Theodosius.  He was a high official in the government, but he ran afoul of the emperor and was thrown into prison.  Eventually he was executed by being bludgeoned to death. Having lost everything that defined his profuse worldly success, he writes in prison, representing his illuminations as a visitation from the goddess Philosophia.  Under the duress of his dire situation, she helps him to evaluate the tokens of success he has lost and find true refuge in the neo-platonic light of the One, the Truth and the Good.  This experience he recorded in what became one of the great guides of medieval Christianity, The Consolation of Philosophy.

A second master, one thousand years older, is the founder of Taoism.  Lao Tse was the quirky and legendary source of the Tao Te Ching, which clarifies the true value and path to everlasting life, the Tao.  One law he reveals is how all that makes up life moves between opposites. Whatsoever one has or does in excess one pays for in excessive liability.  To follow the true way of being, the way of the middle, prevents the suffering of excess and its burdens and eventually leads to an understanding of the Tao. Succeeding on this path defines the very nature of success itself.

In my quest I have also been taking counsel from a few other venerables of the past, such as Plato and Plotinus, and a few sages of the present, in particular the Dalai Lama.  Perhaps the framework for an answer to the question of success comes from the greatest of all teachers, the Buddha: all beings desire happiness and the avoidance of suffering.  If we look upon these as goals, they form the parameters of successful life.

So, inspired by these wise and happy examples, let us turn to the question itself.  What is the common view of success and what is a view that authentically fits the case?

The Common View of Success

Boethius’ losses in this world were cataclysmic.  His tract begins with a radical deconstruction of the common view of success. Money, power and sex are mere tokens, because, as Boethius shows, the happiness they afford is limited and their loss creates suffering. Here is a short summary.

Of course, one has to have the good fortune of sufficiency, that the basic needs of life are covered.  Beyond this, the first token of success, accumulating wealth, soon proves to be a considerable encumbrance. The desire for money, “the root of all evil”, hardly produces happiness, though it arises out of the supposition that happiness can be bought, a specious formula that inevitably ends in disappointment and creates unhappiness. Having more money than one needs creates burdens that are unimaginable to the poor. To have a great deal of money means to have proportionate responsibility and to live in fear of losing it.  Wealth generates envy and desire on the part of others, which constitutes a constant personal threat. The more one has, the more one can lose, the fear of which itself becomes a great burden. To be irresponsible with money when others have so little eventually creates a suffering of its own.

Power and fame bring a superficial egoistic satisfaction, but the soul- destroying machinations needed to generate it and hold on to it and the constant anxiety that one can lose it create misery and unhappiness.  Fame often exposes hidden convictions that one is undeserving, which generates agendas of self-destruction.  The envy and jealousy of those who have less prevents real genuine love from happening.  It sets up a situation in which one is constantly having to be on guard and unable to really trust the love of anyone.

Success in love and sex fulfills genuine needs and creates joy, but the greater the pleasure the more painful its transience.  The more one has, the more one becomes dependent upon it and eventually addicted to it.  Sensuality generates the suffering of addiction and loss.

These are the measures of success desperately pursued by the world.  We can dismiss them as mere tokens because they lead to suffering and do not generate true happiness.  The world that elevates these goals eventually comes to be seen as foolish and vain, in a word, ugly. Once this ugliness is realized, just being in this world and observing it can produce suffering in its own right. None of this, which the world pursues with such dedication and vanity, leads to happiness and prevents suffering.

True Well-Being

In contrast to this, I have the experience of my mother at the end of her life.  Granted, she was blessed by good fortune with basic health, beauty, talent, money, the faithful love of a good husband and three children who adored her.  But, at the age of 95, she achieved a whole new level of beauty, which drew comment wherever she went, she had enough money to be moderately gracious, and she was radiantly loving with every person she met.  So she has taught me to understand a formula for true success in life.  It is really quite simple, and I have taken it on as my lifetime ambition: to be 95 and happy.

In considering such a life we have to consider fate. Are we fated to succeed, or do we have something to do with it?  Life success is a combination of prudence and good fortune.  Prudence is a rare concept these days; it means practical wisdom representing regard for and adherence to the basic laws of Being and existence, which Lao Tse called the Tao. Good fortune is not earned in the present, though it may be the result of good actions or karma from the greater past, as all Hindus and Buddhists believe.  In the present, however, it must be given.  In the exercise of prudence, on the other hand, there is all freedom.  In this regard, well-being is not mere fate, but a matter of choice, moment to moment.

There are successes in life, many occasions of the token variety described above.  But here we are considering success in life as a whole.  This has physical, emotional and intellectual/spiritual components.  And these we will turn to now.

To be 95…
To achieve this advanced age much good fortune is necessary.  First of all, one’s fundamental needs must be covered.  Second, one must live in a good time.  Having long life in a period of general suffering, with all the infirmities of age, hardly seems desirable.  But given that one lives in a felicitous, or at least interesting time, in order to reach this age, one has to have the blessing of good genes.  This blessing however cannot hold up into advanced age wit
hout the appropriate culture of the body, which is all about choice.

Genetic blessing means there is a kind of guarantee on the body until about forty, but from then on out, physical well-being is a function of awareness and care. In this way, success means that one has learned over the years to avoid the hazards of the time, like our fast food and environmental carcinogens.  But much more, it means that one has learned true physical culture, how to honor one’s body and keep it going.  In my view health is a practice. It is so fundamental that it should have the highest priority. The earlier one begins, the better.  Bodily culture begins as a hobby, but as the guarantee starts running out, it gets cultivated into an art, and, towards 95, it becomes a full time job.

To reach 95 is a measure of success, because it means one has been blessed with good fortune but has also been an appropriate steward of that fortune.
On its own, however, the achievement of physical well-being does not suffice as life success.

…And happy
We all seek the false tokens of success.  For most people they are what life is all about.  But as Philosophia showed Boethius, in time they inevitably disappoint and lead to despair. To be happy at 95 requires that one is successful in dealing with this despair.  It means that one has found out how to be happy in spite of life’s disappointments, a very great challenge in its own right.

Central to this happiness is finding and growing into the true love potential in one’s heart.  For some this means mating and breeding.  For those fortunate ones for whom marriage and family go well, there can be deep fulfillment and happiness.  For many others, marriage or family lead to great suffering.  Most basically, however, happiness of the heart comes from being able to choose to be with whomever one loves, to develop the skills for achieving harmony with them, but also being able to deal with their loss.  All of this requires the fundamental life skill of forgiveness, not just of others, but of existence itself.

The real success here is that one finds true value, coming to terms with one’s being to its Source.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. When Philosophia appears to Boethius, she informs him that while he may believe that God rules the world, he does not know what he himself is, and this absence of self-knowledge is the cause of his weakness.  Self-knowledge is the substance of her further revelations.  This is the discovery of one’s true nature, not just in the sense of  ‘finding oneself’, or one’s true identity in the world, a precondition for some earlier worldly success, but more in the sense of one’s ultimate nature, which, unborn, though knowable, extends beyond the beginning and end of life.

My friend Frank Kelly is the last surviving senior member of an august group of Olympian intellectuals, the Court of Reason, which was known as the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara.  Frank is on the cusp of 95 and has discovered that we are all radiant beings, which he describes in his book, Living in Eternity’s Sunrise.  Having realized this radiance as his own true nature, he is a deeply happy soul.

The venerable teachers discussed above and many others clarify the way to this radiance.  Many who succeed in this way find it through religion. My mother, who was not a philosopher, found this Source through her simple but authentic Christian faith, which quietly sustained her throughout her life and flowered into deep happiness in maturity.  Others need to find it through philosophia, the maturity of wisdom.  Socrates taught us that the potential of wisdom is innate in all of us, but it has to be cultivated and allowed to mature.  This can be understood on an analogy from botany.  A plant grows naturally, but it has to be unimpeded and cultivated.  The human psyche flowers into wisdom, but it takes great abilities to get out of the way of this process and at the same time to nurture it. This is known in Buddhism as ‘skillful means’.  Great teachers show us how to do this.

With characteristic economy, Lao Tse has formulated true success:
“Contentment is the greatest wealth.”

Dedicated to my beloved and exceedingly successful friend, Francis Lord Thurlow, on his 98th Birthday