Our Writers Connection visited the Oregon State Penitentiary recently for their yearly Essay Presentation. I served as MC, and they also asked me to present an essay. As I thought and prayed about what to share, I remembered a recent exchange between my 10-year-old son, his friend Alex and me regarding what success means. I began to write about it. Below is the essay I penned and shared (condensed a bit for this space).

 IMG_3625 - Version 2

My 10-year-old son Gus’s friend, Alex, who is also 10, often asks me about my writing. He knows I write for the newspaper and that I have written two books as I have shared with his and Gus’s classes the past two years as a guest speaker.

So, when I take photographs of Alex and Gus, Alex will ask me if the picture will be in the paper, and I tease and say, “You never know. And if not in the newspaper, maybe on my blog.”

     Because of Alex’s ongoing questions about my writing, I asked him one day if he likes to write and if he also wants to be a writer when he grows up. He shrugs his shoulders, as he is not sure.IMG_3714

My son Gus decides to weigh in on my question, saying,  “No, don’t be a writer when you grow up. You won’t be successful.”

Got to love the honesty of your children’s thoughts for sure.

When I asked my son what he means by that statement and why would he say that, he knew right away the answer.

     “Because writers are not successful. They don’t make very much money,” Gus says to me.

     Wow, got to love the honesty of kids. But it got me thinking about the word success and what that means; how do we define success as a society, and how do individuals define success and failure, and what areas are we speaking of when we speak of success.

     I believe, bottom line, that success and failure should not be defined by what we do but by who we are.

     My mom and dad are German immigrants and my dad was a beloved college professor at the University of Portland for over 30 years. He had a great German accent and he was warm and kind and worked very hard. And, he earned his accounting degree while he was a full time professor and has continued as a CPA the years after retiring. And he has to turn away clients because his plate is full, but people love him as their accountant.

     Yet, all my dad ever wanted was his dad’s approval. To be noticed. To be recognized. To hear his dad say, “Good job.”

     That never happened.

     My dad’s memories of his dad were the words spoken to him long ago in Germany when he was just a boy: “You’ll never amount to anything.”

When my dad shared this with me, my heart broke. How could any dad say this to their son or daughter?

My dad is the nicest, kindest, warmest, brightest, smartest person. He walks to St. Philip Neri Catholic Church every morning except Fridays to attend mass. He was a kind and compassionate professor. He says, “I love you” to me. I wondered how any father could say to his son, “You’ll never amount to anything”

     Isn’t that all we ever want in life, to be somebody in the eyes of our parents? To please our parents. To have them say, “good job” to us.

And what does amounting to anything mean anyway?

     Words. Success. Becoming something. Are we what we do? What does success mean?

     When my son says to his friend, that he should not be a writer like his mom because writers are not successful, as they do not make a lot of money, my son, in his own 10-year-old way is saying that making a lot of money is what it means to be successful. In other words, success to him is based upon what I (and other writers) do. (Hey, I tease him; I’m a starving artist, right? But, that did not seem to elevate my status to him at all. If I probed a bit, I think my son would think what I am doing is a good thing, and at least mildly successful.)

     How much money would it take for me to make for my son to feel his mom is successful at being a writer? Okay, I may never make as much as my husband who is a mechanical engineer. And my son Ryan, who graduated from George Fox university this year and is now married and working as an engineer, is making more at a starting salary than I have ever earned. Is he successful already? Yes, but does that make me less successful?

     I don’t think it’s just 10-year-olds who equate success with the amount of money earned or status or the type of job a person has. We as a society look at people and the kind of careers they have and the types of jobs they do and think, oh, they are successful. We see the phones they own and the cars they drive and the houses they live in and we assume they have arrived. They are successful because they do a certain kind of job or own a certain kind of phone or live in a particular neighborhood.

     It’s all about what people do, not who they are.

     But I think in life, how many people have been at the top of their game at one point and then in the pit of despair 5, 10, 15 years later. Think of Wall Street millionaires after the recession. It can be because of the economy or because of a decision made or gradual decisions made along the way.

     We have family friends from Sudan who were successful in being able to move to America. They were religious refugees who were allowed to relocated here because they were persecuted for their faith as Christians. Their family of 9, including 7 children under the age of 16, lived in a North Portland apartment, in a part of Portland that has had gang issues. We were able to help this family. We invited them to join us for Christmas eves and Easter Sundays. We took them to church and tried to help the parents find work. The kids came camping with us and joined us on weekends sometimes.

     But, some of the children made wrong choices. It is hard when the odds are against you and there is little community support to succeed. The  family is splintered now and does not live in Portland anymore. This is no Blindside story.

We are heartbroken for our Sudan friends. We wish we could have seen them “make it” more fully while they lived in our city. We were friends for four years and they were a big part of our lives. It is easy to view myself as a failure for not being able to make it all right for our Sudan friends. It’s easy to question ourselves, to ask, was there something more we could have done?

     So, I am back at my original question, what is success and who is successful? Is it trying to help someone and seeing them become football stars (like the Blindside movie)? Is it having a job that matches your college degree? Is it staying off drugs for one person and out of gangs for another? Is it not taking another sip of alcohol or injecting drugs again for still another? Is it making lots of money? Or owning a large house or being a college professor? When will we feel that we are successful and measure up? And, can we be successful again, once we have fallen. When we make another mistake, the same one that we made, time and time again, can we pick ourselves up and start over? And, if we can, will others let us succeed?

     There has been a story in the news recently about Bradley Manning who “leaked” classified documents and videos to Wiki-leaks. He felt the American public needed to know of some of the things the government was doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, the government has now charged and convicted Bradley of espionage and he will serve 35 years behind bars. Some feel Bradley is a hero, the ultimate definition of success, while others think he is a traitor. Success is so much about our definition and others’ definition.

     In the end, I believe success is about who we are, not so much what we do. It’s how we treat people, and it’s about our relationship with God, it is about how He views us.  He says we are fearfully and wonderfully made  in Psalm 139. Are we seeking the Lord in all we do? Are we living by His Spirit? Are we loving others? Are we trying to be better? Are we trying at all? Are we doing our best at the call we have been given, no matter how much income it brings in? Are we reaching out to help others, even when they in the end make other choices?

     I heard a song by one of my favorite artists, Tenth Avenue North. It is a song called, “You are more.”  I believe it sums up what the most important person in the world (God) thinks about success and who we are. Here are some of the verses and the chorus.


There’s a girl in the corner
With tear stains on her eyes
From the places she’s wandered
And the shame she can’t hide

She says, “How did I get here?
I’m not who I once was.
And I’m crippled by the fear
That I’ve fallen too far to love”

But don’t you know who you are,
What’s been done for you?

Yeah don’t you know who you are?

You are more than the choices that you’ve made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You’ve been remade.

Well she tries to believe it
That she’s been given new life
But she can’t shake the feeling
That it’s not true tonight

She knows all the answers
And she’s rehearsed all the lines
And so she’ll try to do better
But then she’s too weak to try

But don’t you know who you are?

You are more than the choices that you’ve made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You’ve been remade.


‘Cause this is not about what you’ve done,
But what’s been done for you.
This is not about where you’ve been,
But where your brokenness brings you to

This is not about what you built,
But what He built to forgive you,
And what He built to make you know.

You are more than the choices that you’ve made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You’ve been remade.

     After sharing this essay at our prison essay presentation, two different men came up to me and said they got teary-eyed listening to my words. One said they could relate to the part about my dad’s dad, and the words, “You will never amount to anything.” He said his wife says that about him all the time. His wife does not believe he will change and all he wants is for her to believe in him.

The second man who came up to me said he wanted to find the words to the song by Tenth Avenue North. He said they meant the world to him and that he wanted to share the song with other prisoners for worship during prison chapel time.

     Okay, God is using the words and stories He has given me, is that success, I have to ask my 10-year-old? I will say yes, though he may not understand at this stage in his life.

I have told God that if He wants me to continue writing, to make that clear to me, so for now, that is what He has done, and so I continue to write, to share stories.  And, that is success enough for me.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This