Weekly Edgework #55 - July 21, 2005

On Being Fruitful

There is a great difference between successfulness and fruitfulness. Success comes from strength, control and respectability…Fruits, however, come from weakness and vulnerability… A child is the fruit conceived in vulnerability, community is the fruit born through shared brokenness, and intimacy is the fruit that grows through touching one another’s wounds (Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen, p. 10).

Most of us would rather be successful than fruitful. When we are successful at something it gives us great pleasure to recount for others just what we did and how we did it. We like to bask in the afterglow of a job well done and the affirmation of others. When others think of us as being energetic and assertive enough to be successful we feel we gain respect and sometimes there are even rewards and fame. At least we come away with a feeling that we have been useful.

It is not uncommon in the church to speak about the degree to which a program has been successful. If, in fact, a program does not meet certain goals we label it as a failure – sometimes pointing a finger of blame at either those who designed it or those who attempted to carry it out. On the other hand, if it succeeds we tend to repeat it – immortalize it – to the point that it becomes something sacred. In which case we are likely to label it successful long after it has outlived its usefulness.

Success, on a personal or corporate level, is not all that it is cracked up to be. If not managed carefully it can become fertile ground for power struggles and abusiveness. Success at one thing can lead to the assumption that all we do is automatically successful. Indeed, it must be so if we are to maintain our reputations as successful persons. I have lived long enough to see how success can lead to arrogance, pride and blindness. Just try to carry out a frank evaluation of persons who consider themselves to be successful. Even a hint that some things could be improved can trigger a tsunami of defensiveness.

To be fair, we must admit that we need people who are successful to make the world go round. Successful people create jobs for others, build houses that stand the test of time, discover cures for dreaded diseases, grow food to feed the masses and govern communities. But invariably, either because of old age or one type of tragedy or another, all successful people have to put their successes behind them. And it seems that the more successful you have been the harder it is to do. So one might say that success is always limited both in terms of value and duration.

Enduring value is what you are left with when you must leave your successes behind. It is at such times that it becomes evident whether or not your life has also been fruitful. You can take fruit with you into the world beyond success. Indeed, if you have not been nurturing fruit during your times of success it is hard to envision life as being worthwhile when you must lay down your successes. It is for this reason that some people simply can not retire gracefully. That is to say that their success has prevented them from growing fruit that could provide them with hope and joy on the other side of success.

I am not casting stones at others in what I say. By some counts I have had a successful life for which I have received my share of accolades. But even though I made attempts at nurturing personal fruit throughout my life, I was not well-prepared for laying down my successes when, about three years ago, health issues prevented me from continuing the work I found both enjoyable and meaningful. But that did not change reality. I was forced to take a turn in the road that bent sharply away from my successes. But gradually I have come to re-orient my life toward nurturing fruitfulness instead of successful. My only regret now is that I did not give enough priority to cultivating fruitfulness during those times when I was considered to be successful.

So I have begun, although somewhat awkwardly at times, to focus on being fruitful instead of successful. And I am learning that Henri Nouwen is right when he asserts that the compost best suited for fruit-growing consists of weakness, vulnerability and brokenness. When this “garden-mix” is embraced the soil of our souls is enriched and can, with some faith and patience, begin to bear fruit. As a matter of fact I can now see that when we are enamored with being successful it is difficult for the Fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – to emerge.

Of course I hasten to admit that all of this fruit is not yet ripe in my life. But I have on occasion experienced that sense of wonder and amazement that comes with walking through a fruit orchard in autumn. The low-slanted rays of sun painting the hanging fruit in rainbow colors. The scent of “ripeness” wafting on the evening breeze. It is not a sense of successfulness that I feel, but a sense of fruition. Not a time for accolades for a job well done, but a time to savor God’s goodness and grace.

From my present vantage-point, it seems to me that we would do better in the prime of life to set out to cultivate fruitfulness instead of success. If we did that, I think we would be surprised at how successful we could become. However, that success would have a “juicy-fruit” flavor. But if we have passed our prime, all is not lost. We can begin wherever we are to focus on fruit instead of success. Unless we do, our lives will remain forever impoverished.