Success Stories

People want me to tell them success stories. I understand this. They are the stories you want to tell, after all. So why does my scalp tighten whenever I am asked this?

. . . What is success and what is failure? What is good and what is bad? Setback or progress? Great stock these days, especially in nonprofits (and who can blame them?), is placed in evidence-based outcomes. People, funders in particular, want to know if what you do “works”.

Are you, in the end, successful? Naturally, I find myself heartened by Mother Teresa’s take: “We are not called to be successful, but faithful.”  This distinction is helpful for me as I barricade myself against the daily dread of setback. You need protection from the ebb and flow of three steps forward, five steps backward. You trip over disappointment and recalcitrance every day, and it all becomes a muddle. God intends it to be, I think. . . Salivating for success keeps you from being faithful, keeps you from truly seeing whoever’s sitting in front of you. Embracing a strategy and an approach you can believe in is sometimes the best you can do on any given day. If you surrender your need for results and outcomes, success becomes God’s business. I find it hard enough to just be faithful.

. . . Obviously, after having buried 168 young human beings, all killed violently because of gangs, I have had to come to terms with the “failure” of death. . . .

The owner of a vast, expansive heart and among the most heroic women I know is Soledad, the mother of four. . . . . . . I see Soledad a lot, but this one day, two years after the death of Angel (the second of her two sons killed by gangs), I see her in front of the office and we hug. . . . Soledad grabs my arm and thinks and considers her words.

“You know, I love the two kids that I have. I hurt for the two that are gone.” She begins to cry and shows the slightest embarrassment at the size of her honesty.

“The hurt wins . . . The hurt wins.”

Two months later, Soledad is taken to the hospital for an irregular heartbeat and chest pain. I visit her in her room, and she tells me what happened the night she came to the emergency room. They have her on a gurney in White Memorial’s ER.  The doctors are tending to her with EKGs and the like, when there is a rush of activity at the entrance. With the flurry of bodies and medical staff moving into their proscribed roles, a teenage gang member is rushed to the vacant space right next to Soledad.  The kid is covered in blood from multiple gunshot wounds, and they begin cutting off his clothes. The wounds are too serious to waste time pulling the curtain that separates Soledad from this kid fighting for his life. People are pounding on his chest and inserting IVs. Soledad turns and sees him. She recognizes him as a kid from the gang that most certainly robbed her of her sons.

“As I saw this kid,” she tells me, “I just kept thinking of what my friends might say if they were here with me. They’d say, “pray that he dies.’” But she just looked at this tiny kid, struggling to sidestep the fate of her sons, as the doctors work and scream, WE’RE LOSING HIM. WE’RE LOSING HIM.”

“And I began to cry as I have never cried before and started to pray the hardest I’ve ever prayed. “Please . . . don’t . . . let him die. I don’t want his mom to go through what I have.’”

And the kid lived. Sometimes, it only seems that the hurt wins.

Mary Oliver writes, “There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long.”

In the end, effective outcomes and a piling of success stories aren’t the things for which we reach. Though, who am I kidding, I prefer them to abject failure and decades of death. But it’s not about preference. It’s about the disruption of categories that leads us to abandon the difficult, the disagreeable, and the least likely to go very far. On most days, if I’m true to myself, I just want to share my life with the poor, regardless of results. I want to lean into the challenge of intractable problems with as tender heart as I can locate, knowing that there is some divine ingenuity here, “the slow work of God,” that gets done if we’re faithful. Maybe the world could use a dose of a wrong-size approach; otherwise the hurt wins. Maybe there are things you can’t reach. But you can stretch your arm across a gurney and forgive and heal.

Gregory Boyle in Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion