ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
The Dallas Morning News
March 15, 2003
I wonder whether former President Bill Clinton has ever given a speech without mentioning “the American Dream.” The dream to which Mr. Clinton has referred is the hope nourished by thousands of immigrants to escape from misery by being given a chance to “succeed.”
To many people, success means to become rich. No doubt, the United States is the one country in the world where this dream can most easily be realized. Refugees from foreign countries can, by dint of hard work, courage, and perseverance, become millionaires. If a person succeeds, he becomes a hero: big money gives its possessor an aura of glory.
Mr. Clinton fulfilled his ultimate ambition: to become president of the United States. Millions of people look up to him and would be honored to shake his hand. Who he is as a person becomes irrelevant. Flaws of character are put into brackets as soon as one has become rich and powerful.
My concern is not with those who succeed. We all know that success is something very few can stomach without harm. My concern is with the underdogs, those who try and fail. We easily forget that for one winner, there are thousands of “losers.”
At the U.S. Open tennis tournament, for example, there are 256 contestants. After two weeks, all of them have suffered defeat except two.
To win is pleasant; to be be defeated is bitter. Yet most of us are defeated. Most people respond to defeat with bitterness, resentment, rage, envy, and discouragement. I know people who are “broken” because they flunked an exam, because they were fired from their jobs, because their books were turned down by publishers.
Last year in France a “loser” randomly shot at members of the town council where he lived. He justified his action, telling friends and family members that he had always failed and wanted to take revenge on society. Then he committed suicide. His vindictive feelings were gratified.
But we all know people who suffer severe defeats and who do not allow losses to defeat them. One only need read the Epistles of St. Paul to realize how many defeats he suffered, how often he was abandoned and even betrayed by "false brothers," how often he faced death, how often "he was pressed beyond measure above our strength." But through his trusting in God's grace, every one of these trials was transformed into victory. I do not know of a single saint who has not mastered the "holy chemistry" of changing a defeat into a victory for God.
All of us have suffered defeats. All of us know the bitterness of failing, of being humiliated, of being looked down upon, of being rejected, of having a physical appearance which is not to our taste. Yet, God's message to us is that the humble acceptance of a defeat is the greatest victory: the victory over self.
It is true that most of our earthly dreams of success and happiness will not be realized. But if we truly understand the message of the Gospel, our response can only be joy and hope. Because, supernaturally speaking, to humbly accept human defeats is to achieve a supreme victory.
Many saints were not handsome. One of St. Francis's brothers once asked him why everyone was following him, saying, "for you are not a handsome man." To be told that we are not good looking is not pleasant. St. Francis, instead of being offended, rejoiced because he knew that God chooses little ones and makes them instruments of his peace.
To humbly accept our intellectual limitations (there are not many geniuses) is not only wise, but also a sign of intelligence.
Humility is the best protection against talking nonsense, and achieving that humility is quite a feat.
Some of the greatest errors manufactured by the human mind have been "invented" by so-called geniuses (regretfully, some were university professors) who thought they knew everything.
In eternity, we shall not be rewarded for our earthly successes. We shall be rewarded for our humble acceptance of earthly defeats.
We should pray for what I shall call "holy imagination," which will—with God's grace—teach us to change every single defeat into a victory. This is the Christian message.