Thursday, May 6, 2010

Finding Perspective in the Midst of Success

Since I don't have time right now to attempt to articulate on this blog my perspective on some deep philosophical or theological problem, I want instead to ask readers how they would answer a certain pragmatic question that relates to some events in my own life.

Over this past weekend, not only have I been swamped with grading while simultaneously finishing up the run of "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" at the Town & Gown Theatre, but the Oklahoma Writers' Federation had its annual conference. And so I found myself driving down to Oklahoma City each day for the conference, driving back to Stillwater in the later afternoons for performances, and trying to fit grading somewhere into the mix.

Saturday was an especially big day. I had a pitch session with an agent at the conference, and got the best conceivable result that such sessions generate: The agent wanted to see my entire manuscript (the manuscript at issue is a novel--a literary Christmas fantasy that might be marketable as Young Adult fiction).

After this I drove back to Stillwater for the penultimate performance of the play. And while I was backstage between scenes I got a call from my friends at the conference. They wanted to tell me about the awards ceremony (which I'd unfortunately had to miss for the sake of the play). At this ceremony, the results of Oklahoma Writers' Federation annual writing competition are announced. My two short story submissions both received first place in their respective categories, a poem got second place, and another poem got an honorable mention.

Giddy with the news, I went out for the final scene of the play, in which the cast collectively tells the story of Alexander Papaderos and his answer to the question, "What is the meaning of life?"

Of course, his answer had nothing to do with attracting the interest of agents, winning awards, or getting standing ovations. It was about reflecting light into dark places (as described in this earlier post).

And of course, if you're all full of yourself it's hard to be a mirror, to reflect that which is greater than you, that which transcends you, and direct it where it will do the most good. To be a mirror calls for a certain kind of humility. And so I was forced--as I stood there with a small mirror in my hand thinking about my awards, as the audience thundered its enthusiastic applause--to try to put my recent accomplishments into some sort of perspective.

The point of awards isn't to give the recipients swollen heads. The point of applause isn't to make a performer feel self-important. And it can be just as ungracious to refuse appreciation for what one has done well as it is to be a snob about it. But what should I do with these awards and applause?

After the play--which just got better and better with every performance--I shook hands with delighted audience members, found my cheeks were hurting from so much smiling, and then was toasted by the rest of the cast and crew for my awards during the cast party that followed. And in the days since I've been wrestling with the question of how successes and honors play into a life lived well.

These recent successes of mine are, of course, relatively modest. I haven't won the Nobel Prize or earned a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall. But even so, the events of the past week raise for me the question about what one should do with honors and appreciation. What is the proper virtue with respect to them? Are there examples that readers of this blog can offer of people who received honors with a special kind of grace, or used appreciation to "reflect the light" more powerfully than before?


  1. A truly fascinating question.

    Congratulations, and all that!

    My take would be that awards really aren't about you principally, though. They are a way for the culture to emphasize its values in a public way. They show what we value by example, so that others are inspired to strive and achieve things we value collectively (or at least in some groups). The best way to fulfill their purpose is to continue embodying your own values, noting where they overlap with those of the larger culture, whether that leads to further awards or not.

    So, for example. the greatest dissidents of the Soviet Union leveraged some state award as hero of the people, etc. into cultural space to speak against the state on behalf of the larger society, leading sometimes to a distinct lack of further awards.

    Conversely, it would be a mistake to seek awards for their own sake, as politicians do when they have lost their original animating impulse. If you agree with the values that these awards are about, (as you do), then the last thing you would want is to transition from those values to others .. perhaps those of hollywood celebrities who leverage fame into further fame with little hindsight into what the point really is.

    As you imply, it is psychologically difficult to escape this trap, since we are highly suggestible beings, and praise/validation is extremely addictive.

  2. Awards and recognition can be very, very distracting. I agree with Burk, that if you receive an award, you are being used by the granters of the award as a symbol to further their own aims.

    That said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this when you share the same aims. It's good stuff.

    I have meditated on the desire for success much in my life. It comes down to the desire to be validated by others. I will not say this is a bad thing, when it's in balance. No man is an island. To a degree I think we actually are what others think of us. Perhaps the question is whether the validation encourages us to continue or encourages us to stop.

    I am sure that your recognitions will encourage you to continue - and continue doesn't necessarily mean writing, acting, the specifics. As an artist, I am still learning this lesson, but our ultimate work, hopefully our masterpiece, will be a life well-lived.

  3. Burk and Steven--These are helpful remarks. I think you're both correct that the primary aim of awards ceremonies is for a broader community to assert and reinforce what it values.

    What I'd add--especially in light of the fact that the contest of the Oklahoma Writers' Federation involves unpublished manuscripts, and there is no publishing venue for winners--is that the aim of asserting community values, while sometimes done by lifting into public view exemplars of what the community values, is sometimes pursued in other ways--by, for example, encouraging the individual winner to continue producing work of a certain kind.

    What is interesting to me when it comes to artistic awards is that, sometimes, the greatest artists are trailblazers who pursue new aesthetic territory, territory which the community hadn't previously even THOUGHT to value. In many cases these trailblazers aren't recognized with honors and awards for precisely this reason--or they are awarded only late in their careers, after their work has succeeded in transforming the standards of the community by its impact.

    This fact means, I think, that a certain level of humility in the face of awards is not only a sign of grace but of honesty.

  4. Eric,

    To strive for excellence is a virtue, isn’t it? And if awards help energize one, or help weaken one’s self doubts, then I suppose they are for the best. On the other hand too much success and recognition can blind to a halt one’s creativity, the way strong lights may immobilize a rabbit.

    I think the best attitude to have vis-a-vis awards and recognition is to be thankful and appreciative for them, but also not to give them much importance. What is certain is that to strive to attain glory is about as vain as to strive to attain money. After all, what good is glory? The only person’s opinion that really matters is the opinion of the one who sees us as we really are. And God needs not give out any awards, for becoming better persons is its own greatest possible award.