You Are Not the Sum of Your Success
Letter from Danielle Medearis
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My beautiful, beloved sisters,
It doesn’t take anything monumental to trigger emotions of unworthiness that cause tears to sting my eyes. Maybe I avoided prayer today, and I feel despicable for my lack of devotion; maybe I fumbled my words while trying to defend my religion against the jeers of coworkers, and I feel stupid; maybe I’m struggling with anxiety about the cookies I ate with lunch, and I hate how weak that makes me feel; maybe I realized I spent 6 hours yesterday watching TV, and I’m bombarded with self-derision at my pathetic wastefulness; maybe my fiancé and I have stumbled yet again in our struggle for chastity, and I flooded by despair at my own inability to love as perfectly as I'd like. Any and all of these are enough to make me retreat to an empty bathroom stall, reciting and clinging to the words of Mother Teresa: “God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful.”
For most of my life, I mistakenly thought that in order to please God, in order to be of any good, I must succeed at everything, and I bent all my energy to achieving my notion of perfection. I ran cross country and track competitively, breezily excelled at academics, enjoyed good friendships and solid relationships, and considered myself to be a good Catholic with an imperturbable faith. If one had asked, I would have said I loved myself and believed completely that God loved me too, but in reality, that wasn’t authentically true. I loved myself with conditionals, qualifications that had to be met and lists of accomplishments that needed to be checked off. Worse still, when I presented myself to God’s love, it wasn’t with humility, but with pride and the sense that I had earned His grace.
My confidence and self esteem were propped up on worldly stilts that kept me living at a distance from God, far enough to where I felt I could hide any unseemly vulnerabilities. I lived a life that featured God as another tasteful ‘activity’ to be good at, but who only had as much room in my life as I allotted to Him.
So, God did for me the only thing that He could: He knocked all my stilts down. Within one year, all the successes I had built my identity on came crumbling down. My running was plagued with injury and I had to quit my college team. My self-esteem was beset with an eating disorder. I broke up with my boyfriend because of religious disagreements. I fell into sins I never dreamt I would struggle with. My grades faltered and school seemed meaningless. My friendships suffered as I isolated myself. Worst of all, I was inundated with overwhelming shame. Everything I had held onto so tightly, everything I had thought made me worthy of God’s love, seemed scattered and broken. I yearned for God and His love more than ever, but I was drowning in darkness, convinced God could never love a failure like me.
In my consuming night, God scooped me up, and held me before Him. At the end of that year, during Christmas, with all the stilts gone and nothing propping myself at a distance from Him, I felt His gaze directly upon my broken, vulnerable, and very real heart. And, amazingly, there was nothing but love. As the new year dawned, I began working hard to love myself again, simply because I was convicted that God loved me, even when I did not feel like I deserved it. And if He loved me, I figured I should too.
I have been working since to reestablish my identity, not on my own successes, but on God’s love. It is a struggle to approach God every day, not as the perfect angel child I used to consider myself as, but as a prodigal daughter, humble and contrite and seeking to rest in God’s mercy. I used to proudly offer my successes to God as proof of my worthiness; now, I offer Him my failures, which still are plentiful. I offer Him my humiliation when a colleague in the overwhelmingly atheist philosophy department I work in as a graduate student makes a derogatory remark about my religion, and I am too scared to defend myself. I offer Him my painful weakness when I have absolutely no desire to pray. I offer Him my anxiety when I’m around large crowds of people and I feel insecure. I offer Him my depression on the days when I’m miserable for no reason at all. I offer Him fear as I continue to work to feel beautiful in the body God has given me. I offer God my failures, and I thank Him for any successes He allows me through His grace. It is the most beautiful mystery I have ever experienced to grow daily in awareness of my own littleness and inability, and conversely in God’s infinite greatness and love.
It is diabolically easy in our world to ground our worth in our personal successes, largely because so many of the things we can become fixated on are are not bad in themselves. They are thing like grades, sports, or appearances, but also who we’ll marry, how many likes we get on Instagram posts of our adorable children, the amount of Catholic activities we participate in, how often we go to daily mass or confession, how many social activities we have on our schedule, how many Catholic books we’ve read, or the degree of piety we practice during mass; these are all inherently good things that we can inappropriately rely on for our worth. The problem is, when we place our self-worth and goodness in any actions of our own, we not only risk the possibility of losing these capacities and thus our sense of worth, but we also limit our relationships with God and the amount we rely on Him.
My dearest sisters, remember this, which I have to remind myself daily: You are not valuable because of anything you do. Your worth does not stem from a single action of your own. You could never again, for the rest of your life, enjoy any sort of seeming success, and you would still be worthy of love simply because of the fact that God loves you. When our world overwhelms you, when the evil one whispers lies into your ear that hiss you are unlovable, when you seem to do nothing but fail over and over, find a quiet place (maybe an empty bathroom stall), hold tight to God’s fatherly hand and cling to Mother Teresa’s words: “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.”
With so much love for all of your beautiful unique souls, your sister in faith and failure,
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My name is Danielle Medearis, and I am a 23 year old graduate student studying philosophy at Colorado State University, where my specific areas of interest include metaethics, free will, and logic. I attended the University of Tulsa for my undergrad, where I ran on their cross country and track teams and double majored in kinesiology and philosophy. After graduating in May of 2019 with my masters, I hope to teach theology and philosophy at Catholic high schools, because I am passionate about encouraging young Catholics to ask questions and pursue truth relentlessly, so as to transform their faith from a inanimate label to a personal love affair. I strongly believe that questioning one’s faith or wrestling with doubts should not be understood as a failure of belief, but as a mark of authentic engagement with the dazzling mystery of Christ. Personal hobbies include running, poetry, hiking, Pokemon and Legend of Zelda video games, and acknowledging God’s unfailing sense of humor in my life. If I could give one message to all Catholics, it would be to acknowledge your brokenness; through this acknowledgement, we enable ourselves to support, encourage, and protect one another, not to mention it allows us to tap into Christ’s strength instead of relying on the illusion of our own. We all do ourselves a disservice by walking around pretending we aren’t bleeding when Christ needs us to be His healing hands on earth; how can He heal wounds we struggle desperately to hide?
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