Rethinking Success

AS MY EXTENDED family gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table before the latest market crash, conversation with cousins flowed about friends making big money with technology start-ups: “more, more; faster, faster; bigger, bigger; louder, louder.”

A hail of laughter greeted me when I quietly muttered that my ambition was, “poorer, poorer; slower, slower; smaller, smaller; quieter, quieter.”

When Sojourners started in 1971, I was 23 years old. Seven young seminary students pooled $100 each and used an old typesetter that we rented for $25 a night above a noisy bar to print 20,000 copies of the first Post-American, the predecessor to Sojourners magazine. We took the bundles in our trucks and cars to student unions in college campuses across the country and began collecting subscriptions in a shoebox kept in one of our rooms.

For more than a decade, we shared our money in common, trying to live as the early Christians (see Acts 2), and allowed ourselves $5 a month for personal spending. The highest-paid staff person was a young woman from a neighborhood family who wanted an evening cleaning job.

We worshiped together twice a week and opened our homes to our neighbors. When our first child was born, Jackie and I brought him home to a row house in Columbia Heights in D.C. where we were living with 18 other people, including an African-American family and a Lakota couple with some of their extended family from the reservation in South Dakota. You had to be a bit crazy to be in the early community. And yes, we were poor. And we were small.

We tried to slow down. I tacked to my office door Thomas Merton’s warning to social activists about the violence of overwork:

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects ... is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist ... kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

To stay alive, we needed the energies of prophet, pastor, and monk. Our social justice activism needed the container of community and the power of prayer. On our best days these three energies were at least on speaking terms with each other. But like every other intentional community that I know, most of the time we majored in one, minored in a second, and had a hard time with the third.

For Sojourners, the outer journey of prophetic ministry was our major. The journey together in community was our minor. And the inner journey was our blind spot. We did not know how to be silent, or still, or slow. And so, like most young communities, we often could not see our own inner contradictions and arrogance, our own excesses and extremes.

There were some early intervention attempts. Several members from the Church of the Saviour community in Washington, D.C., traveled out west to our first home near Chicago to lead us on a spiritual retreat—conveniently neglecting to warn us that this was going to be a silent retreat. When Wes Michaelson (now Granberg-Michaelson) announced in the first session on Friday evening that we would enter the “great silence” and that no words should be spoken until Sunday morning, we were flabbergasted. As he ended the first session, he put an apple in the center of the room, and asked us to sit in silence after the session ended. Then he left.

Ed Spivey ate the apple. I guess that was our way of meditating! We truly did not know how to act without words. After all, words were our business. Did Wes really want to put us out of a job?

NOW, 41 YEARS later, Sojourners has grown up. We are not poor, or small, or slow—or silent! We have a large budget with many full-time staff. For better or worse, Sojourners has become an “institution” with the necessities of policies, procedures, protocols, precedents, and concerns about hiring and firing, supervision and management, promotions and salaries, lawsuits and litigation.

Some might say Sojourners is now a “success.” We certainly have a bigger public microphone than we did in the past, and the message of “faith in action for social justice” that we have been pushing for 40 years seems to be taking root.

It all boils down to this: Poorer, slower, smaller—yes, and maybe even quieter—may be necessary for the inner journey, but it is not a very good business plan.

In Falling Upward, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr talks about the journey of descent that characterizes “second-half-of-life” spirituality. He reminds us that institutions by nature are “first-half-of-life structures” that “must and will be concerned with identity, boundaries, self-maintenance, self-perpetuation, and self-congratulation.” He goes on to caution against false expectations: “Don’t expect or demand from groups what they usually cannot give,” Rohr writes. “Doing so will make you needlessly angry and reactionary.”

In Bill Plotkin’s model of the eight stages of human development in Nature and the Human Soul, institutions can, at best, be stage four, which in his view is still an adolescent level. In Plotkin’s opinion, only 15 percent of Americans have crossed into mature, initiated adulthood, and in general we are stuck in what he calls a “patho-adolescent” culture that lacks the wisdom of initiated men and women elders.

An institution’s job is to encase the renewal insight in a preserving shell that can carry the renewal seed to a future generation—certainly not to die to its organizational identity, which is required to begin Plotkin’s stage five. If we are lucky, we outgrow the organizations that we ourselves give birth to and become “joyfully disillusioned” with the very institutions that we help to create. And if we are wise, some of us will grow by staying within the very organizations that we ourselves have outgrown.

The tension of this seeming contradiction is the transformational stew of new possibilities, both for the individual who stays and for the organization. We should not expect the institution to be more than it can be.

In some ways we no longer “believe” in the organization, but we do pin our hopes to the renewal energy that birthed it, and keep letting that spirit renew us. Then we can stand in the midst of organizational disappointments and betrayals, of silliness and pettiness. Broken dreams and relationships do not need to destroy us. Instead, with consciously applied inner work, they can become small doors that lead to greater wholeness.

It takes a contemplative mind to see one’s own inner contradictions, the failures and inherent betrayals within our own lives and the institutions that we help to create. Those who take this journey of descent into their own sacred wound understand that what is flawed in them is somehow intimately connected to the unique gift that they have to offer to a broken world.

Renewal movements and institutions need each other and must learn the unique steps of their own sacred dance. Yes, renewal movements do become institutions—at least if the movement wants to endure past the first generation of its founders.

The renewal movement needs the ballast of institution or it can become unbalanced or fanatical and not see the limitations of its own renewal insight. The institution needs the renewal movement and individuals within it, knowing that it does not perfectly embody the renewal insight that birthed it.

The saving grace for individuals and institutions is that they don’t quite believe their own press. They know that they are flawed, and each needs the checks and balances that the other provides. We are all broken, as individuals and as institutions. But what is broken is also part of our beauty and our gift.

I LIVE UNDER a canopy of trees in a wilderness called Rolling Ridge near Harpers Ferry, W.Va. A wilderness is not a pretty park. Actually, it’s a mess: Every single tree has its flaws—broken tops, disease, twisted trunks. When the big storms come through, it almost looks like a war zone with toppled trees and broken branches filling the landscape. And yet, it is equally true that this “broken” wilderness has a profound beauty that heals all that come to visit or to live—in spite of the fact that every single thing that makes up that beauty is broken and flawed.

Not too long ago, I traveled to the Arizona desert with a group of men and lived for three days with one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems—“The Man Watching.” In that poem Rilke describes watching an “immense storm” sweep across the landscape and transform it. He then speculates what would happen to us if we let this “storm” sweep across our own life, and let ourselves be dominated as if by an immense storm—we would then become strong, he writes. He goes on to redefine winning and reminds us how we continue to grow: “by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.”

We finally realize that the wound that lies at the heart of everything—both our own lives and our institutions—cannot be cured. Paradoxically, we also are driven and called to cure the incurable wound! And here is the magic: The conflict and friction that arises in our largely unsuccessful attempts to cure the incurable is itself the training ground for our deepest transformation.

I recently listened to one of Richard Rohr’s talks on “Loving the Two Halves of Life: The Further Journey,” where he holds out this hope: “Your holding and ‘suffering’ of this tragic wound, your persistent but failed attempts to heal it, your final surrender to it, will ironically make you into a wise and holy person.” Rohr said, “It will make you patient, loving, hopeful, expansive, faithful, and compassionate—which is precisely the second-half-of-life wisdom.”

This kind of shadow work becomes a necessary spiritual discipline. Seeing in ourselves what we dislike in the other, we learn to be gentle and kind. We delight in vulnerability and weakness, and believe that the wisdom that comes from our mistakes and failures is worth passing on to younger communities and movements.

Bob Sabath is director of web and digital technology, and one of the founders, of Sojourners. He lives at the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community in West Virginia, where he offers spiritual direction and wilderness retreats.

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