Thursday, February 13, 2014

Better Late: On Time, Success and Faithfulness

I read the following recently in The Geography of Time, a study of how time is experienced in different cultures, by social psychologist Robert Levine:

My colleagues and I asked people how much they thought punctuality for appointments was tied to success. To my surprise, Brazilians rated people who are always late for appointments as must successful and punctual people as least successful. Our data also showed that Brazilians rated a person who was always late for appointments as more relaxed, happy and likeable—all of which tend to be associated with being successful.
If that's the case, then I'm more successful than my friend Dave, because every week he beats me to Caribou coffee for our Friday coffee klatch. It means I'm more successful than my boss and fellow team member, because they're always already in their seats by whenever I saunter in to our weekly team meeting. I'm more successful than the homeless guys I watch TV with on Sundays, since they're already on their second cup of coffee by the time I pull into the church parking lot.

Of course, what's true of Brazil isn't necessarily true of the American Midwest. Such flagrant tardiness is generally frowned upon, to put it mildly. My boss and my friend, and even those homeless guys, are more gracious toward me than social mores require of them.

I do like the notion of not being ruled so strictly by time, though. I stopped wearing a watch years ago because I felt surrounded by clocks even without one, monitored by time more closely than by the National Security Agency. In some countries, time is a slave to the people; but in my country--and thanks to my country, increasingly in a global economy--time is the slave driver, and our failure to defer to it is typically met with swift and severe punishment, and such punishment is judged to be right and good.

I read this paragraph from Levine to the middle-schoolers at my church as a way of demonstrating to them that how we define success is culture-bound and arbitrary. Show up late to an appointment in Brazil and you're a big shot. Show up late to a middle school class in Illinois and you're sent to the principal's office. I told them, in fact, not to waste their time pursuing success; it's too ephemeral, too arbitrary, too fickle to merit their attention. I told them, in fact, that the only time Jesus talked about success, he was shaming the most successful people in his social networks:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” (Matthew 23:15)
No self-respecting, church-attending, God-fearing middle-schooler wants to be a child of hell, and no red-blooded American evangelical wants to make people more hellish than they already are. But the pursuit of success sometimes leads to just such an outcome.

I told those kids that they should pursue faithfulness instead, and that pursuing faithfulness might occasionally result in their being judged as unsuccessful by the people around them. I told them they might sometimes be tempted to forsake faithfulness in favor of success, and that they might sometimes suffer at the hands of people who have sold their souls to the success gods. I didn't sugar coat it for them. But I left there feeling more strongly, not less, that success is an idol, a serpent hissing sweet nothings in our ears. I left there at least temporarily recommiting myself to follow the apostle Paul's advice to his student Timothy:

Set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. ... Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:12, 15, 16 NIV)
Perseverance has more to do with faithfulness than success, because what counts for success inevitably changes, and faithfulness to the God who never changes and who is himself faithful to us inevitably outlasts it.

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