Do you remember as a child (or maybe more recently) dreaming of being great? I could see myself doing some wonderful thing that everyone would recognize as wonderful – then acknowledging that I was wonderful!
Looking back and evaluating some aspect of one's lifework, hoping it has been of value, is not uncommon. But we'll get an accurate read on our lives only with an accurate definition of success.
I just saw "The Chorus," a French film about a middle-aged man who becomes a prefect in a boarding school for incorrigible boys. The job represents failure to him. The boys are difficult and he struggles, but they ultimately respond to his principled kindness and to the joy of singing, as he teaches them choral music he composed but never published.
The behavior of the individual boys and of school personnel is transformed, as is the tone of the whole school. But the prefect is fired. This event serves as a catalyst for teachers and staff to take action that results in the dismissal of the dishonest and cruel head of the school. The future of two boys is revealed. One runs after the prefect as he is leaving the school and is then step-fathered by him, while the other, because of the prefect's help and encouragement, goes on to become a famous orchestra conductor.
Was the prefect's life a failure, as he assumed, or a success?
Let's look at the life of Jesus. Though he wasn't rich or politically powerful, his work and teachings, his reputation and example, are still widely known and acknowledged as successful in the profoundest way; he provides a model for all to follow.
What Jesus saw as most important is recorded in several places. Of primary importance was to love God with all one's heart and soul and mind and strength. Secondly, one should love one's neighbor as oneself (see Mark 12:30, 31). These commandments, which are really a summary of the Ten Commandments, directed his life activity; they were basic to who he was and to his successful life. He assured others they could follow those commandments and showed why this was important. At one point, he even said that those who obeyed the commandments would be "called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:19).
Jesus did God's work. He didn't take credit for himself, but recognized that his talents came from God. He accepted God's guidance in everything. And he spent much time teaching about the God of love, whom he knew as his Father. He helped others know God as their Father and showed them how to live their lives so that people would see their words and actions as representative of God's goodness. His parables, the Beatitudes, and other teachings define how to live, how to work, and how to treat others. Everything Jesus did and taught was about honoring God.
Jesus also loved others. He healed the sick, transformed sinners, and raised the dead. He helped when money, food, and safety were the need. His acts expressed compassion for individuals and met human needs, while showing people what it was to be a loved child of God.
The prefect in the movie succeeded in much the way that Jesus defined success. He certainly followed the Second Commandment's direction to love others. The prefect is a fictional character, of course, but most of us at times find ourselves making that success/failure evaluation in our own lives. Using criteria from Jesus' teachings allows a correct evaluation. What's important is that we love and honor God with our lives, and that we love others.
Perhaps we should measure our accomplishments not by the number of people who know about and applaud our work, but by the fact that someone at some point has been touched and transformed by our work – that someone has been healed, comforted, helped in some way. That is success. And the one who's been helped will surely testify to that.