So last week I wrote that the American (or Western) big business, sell-everything-and-work-80-hours-a-week-for-success culture is seriously flawed. Folks sacrifice their families and relationships for the sake of big money and fame as top-of-the-pile ladder-climbers. The solution to this is not to create more government sanctions because the government will ultimately become a big business in which to succeed it will be necessary to work the most hours, shmooze with the most people and so on. Instead, the remedy is for us to properly understand the nature of work and its place in our lives as well as find motivationin the most important things, namely family and friends.
So how did we come to the place where large numbers of us sacrifice relationships for success? Extreme individualism is a product of modernity with a long story to tell, which I won't go into here. (It definitely has something to do with Descartes
.) However, at the very heart of the matter resides the oft tacit belief that from the money, power, and honor that come one earns from triumph in business will spring happiness. A great mistake here would be to overreact to this and label the man foolish who would subscribe to such a ridiculous proposition. Let me tell you from experience, to the one with the achievement-driven personality type conquest in business is a sweet Siren song.
Accomplishment in business requires excellence in a number of different areas. The best businessman is a deeply disciplined person who has exceptional personal skills, has a grand vision, and leads people well. To become this sort of person, one must cultivate all four Classical Virtues (Wisdom, Moderation, Courage and Justice). Though the motivation might be wrong, the best corporate officers end up with highly developed character.
The temptation to throw oneself into business also satiates the God-given desire to fill a vocation. We were made to work and enjoy it dearly when what we do on a daily basis accesses our creativity and talents. We love to produce things! It feels great to put on a fantastic presentation that convinces your boss to move the company in the direction you suggest. The rush you get when you broker a big deal is comparable to a musician writing an enchanting melody or a painter accurately painting a landscape. Business is no different from any other craft on this basis. In fact, a good business almost daily affords chances to better others’ lives.
Even the honor, power, and money gained from business are good things in themselves. Honor, or the glory given by society to one who achieves meaningful success, contains no ill. If too much is given for the wrong task – like giving Brittany Spears millions of dollars to sing in a mediocre fashion – it is bad for society. It’s almost always bad for Brittany, or - more to the point -the businessman recipient, because it tends to over-inflate the ego; it nurtures the weeds of pride so quick to spring up in the arrogant furrows of our souls. Still, it can be used, along with power, to influence positive change. Good people with lots of esteem or influence have abundant ability to get things done for the poor, needy and downcast. The benefits of right usage of money are clear to see.
But what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? The life of man ought to cultivate excellence, but achieving excellence in one area at the expense of the others leads to destruction. When we excel in one area and prove we belong with the best, we easily trick ourselves into believing that we are fulfilled and happy. The emptiness of the one who sits in his or her castle with good things heaped around is unparalleled. Literary characters like Dr. Faustus, Marlowe's anti-hero, and Jason Robards’ character in Magnolia, who throughout the film lays dying alone in his penthouse unreconciled to his son and with a young wife using him for his money, illustrate the hollowness of life constructed on the foundation of “fulfillment from the world.”
Contrast this with a life blossoming with virtue. Even a poor man is happy when his soul is at rest. Imagine the possibility of life without desires for what is evil, but only for what is good. Imagine unity in the soul instead of different parts of us fighting to crowd out the others. Money and success can’t buy that. Only a life of discipline utterly dependent on Jesus Christ will find it.
The person with this flourishing soul, a “whole soul”, will naturally find him or herself surrounded by meaningful relationships. Everyone wants a Wise, Just, Courageous, Moderate friend. This person will also recognize that a beautiful friendship only happens when sufficient time is invested into it. Hours that could potentially be spent climbing the corporate ladder must be spent “hanging out”, engaging in important conversations and doing worthwhile things. The man with a whole soul plays catch and goes fishing with his son. He takes his wife on romantic dates. He calls his mom and drinks iced tea on the porch with his dad – he’s not in an office 80 hours a week.
Our culture tells us that value is found in being the best: if you are not tops in your vocation, what have you done with your life? Western culture used to say with Aristotle: “The happiest man is the man at leisure with friends.” (For more on the ancient concept of leisure, see Dr. Paul Spears' article entitled The Life of Leisurehere.) The question is “which life is better”? The answer is obvious.
Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.