Success

Society measures success in myriad ways. In addition, we often inflict on ourselves our own idiosyncratic measurements as well. Some of these categories prove to be completely ambiguous – “happiness,” “prestige.” Some of the time the categories are quantifiable, but discouraging – “income,” “place on a corporate ladder.” Recently, I came across a definition of “success” that struck me as both easily quantifiable, and delightfully encouraging.

There is no success in life as sweet as making a baby laugh.

At first glance this definition may seem trite or insubstantial. Taken even on its’ own though, there is a great depth to be inferred from the relationship it calls for between human beings. However, it stood out for me even more because of its’ context. The line comes from the mind of a character in a novel of historical-fiction by Carol Wallace, Leaving Van Gogh. An imagined scene takes place between the real-life doctor for Vincent Van Gogh in his final days of life, Dr. Paul Gatchet, Vincent and Vincent’s brother, Theo Van Gogh, plus Theo’s wife and child. In the doctor’s back yard, Vincent carries his nephew in his arms and rushes at some ducks. In their wild, squawking escape, the commotion causes the baby to laugh. Though the scene is imagined, the emotions and the connections it portrays are true to life.

There is no success in life as sweet as making a baby laugh.

This aphorism got me thinking of a poem from Wendell Berry that I have long thought of as a great guide to a successful life as well. It reminds me a bit of those “commencement speeches” that circulate on the internet every year around graduation time. The difference with this one is that it is quite verifiable and from a man whose thoughts have become more prophetic with each passing year. The poem is titled, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for a profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark a false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

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