The emptiness of success

(Carson Weitnauer) #1

Hi friends, (@Interested_in_Atheism, @Interested_in_Evangelism)

This weekend I read Open, the autobiography by Andre Agassi. It is a vulnerable, intense retelling of his story. From a childhood with an abusive father who tormented him into long days of tennis practice, to becoming the #1 ranked player in the world, it is filled with a candid look at his inner demons that he wrestled with in his personal and professional life — all while under the scrutiny of the global media and fan base (both those who loved him and those who hated him).

As I was reading, one particular section grabbed ahold of me for its open admission of how little joy he found in being ranked the world’s #1 tennis player (emphasis added):

IN THE MORNING we catch the Concorde to Paris, then a private plane to Palermo. I’m barely settled into my hotel room when the phone rings. Perry. In my hand, he says, I hold the latest rankings. Hit me with it. You—are number one. I’ve knocked Pete off the mountaintop. After eighty-two weeks at number one, Pete’s looking up at me. I’m the twelfth tennis player to be number one in the two decades since they started keeping computer rankings. The next person who phones is a reporter. I tell him that I’m happy about the ranking, that it feels good to be the best that I can be. It’s a lie. This isn’t at all what I feel. It’s what I want to feel. It’s what I expected to feel, what I tell myself to feel. But in fact I feel nothing.

I SPEND MANY HOURS ROAMING the streets of Palermo, drinking strong black coffee, wondering what the hell is wrong with me. I did it—I’m the number one tennis player on earth, and yet I feel empty. If being number one feels empty, unsatisfying, what’s the point? Why not just retire?

I picture myself announcing that I’m done. I choose the words I’ll speak at the news conference. Several images then come to mind. Brad, Perry, my father, each disappointed, aghast. Also, I tell myself that retiring won’t solve my essential problem, it won’t help me figure out what I want to do with my life. I’ll be a twenty-five-year-old retiree, which sounds a lot like a ninth-grade dropout.

No, what I need is a new goal. The problem, all this time, is that I’ve had the wrong goals. I never really wanted to be number one, that was just something others wanted for me. So I’m number one. So a computer loves me. So what? What I think I’ve always wanted, since I was a boy, and what I want now, is far more difficult, far more substantial. I want to win the French Open. Then I’ll have all four slams to my credit. The complete set. I’ll be only the fifth man to accomplish such a feat in the open era—and the first American.

And a few chapters later he adds, for good measure:

Part of my discomfort with tennis has always been a nagging sense that it’s meaningless.

I think this is a helpful illustration for our friends who are attempting, through their performance at work, to escape a feeling of meaninglessness. If we can learn from Agassi’s story, then perhaps we can more quickly pivot to a more solid foundation for our lives. As Agassi says in a recent interview:

Irish News: How do you look after your wellbeing?

AA: I have my quiet time that I cut out from my schedule, and I have my Christian faith which is very important to me for being centred.

A few questions for discussion:

  1. What other stories of finding emptiness at the very top of a career have you found? I would be interested to know of other, similar stories to Andre Agassi’s.
  2. How have you personally experienced this lack of fulfillment in professional accomplishments? (Remember that this is a public discussion forum).
  3. What are some practical ways that this story might help you open up a spiritual conversation with a friend? (For instance, give them a copy of Open and invite them to discuss it with you).
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(Elizabeth Bays) #2

I was always driven to succeed from an early age. I was interested in money and running my own business. I was involved in the horse world and part of my life’s goal was to become a top competitor in the barrel racing world to give me clout and a name for my own horse business of training and selling.

A professed Christian from an early age, I struggled with liking God or understanding salvation due to clouded understanding and false teaching growing up. I knew there was a God I just wasn’t sure I liked Him.

My life was full of work and more work. I had a goal and I was going for it. All the while, I did have emptiness and often asked myself, “is this all there is”? One day I was returning from a race that I had placed in, it was a big accomplishment to win in this race and I remember driving home thinking “I did it, 3 years of training with this horse and I finally got here, I’m on my way to accomplishing my goal”, and it all felt so meaningless. The ride home was so depressing.

I would sometimes be outside feeding my horses or riding and would be watching the sky or a sunset and suddenly be filled with such an intense longing and surge of emotions that it took my breath away. Later, when I was seeking after God for real, I read Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis. There I discovered I wasn’t the only one to feel that overpowering surge of emotions and longing and I was the one to be surprised to discover the one, true God and have since had my life turned upside down because of it.

I read Francis Collins book, The Language of God. It’s not exactly an autobiography but Francis does speak of how meaningless his life was and all its accomplishments until he too discovered what those intense emotions and longings were inside him as well.

Now I seek to keep Christ at the center of my life, not success, money or fame. My life has meaning because of Who gave me life; And my life has purpose because of Who I serve now.

I’m pretty much an open book now with those who are open to hearing my testimony. I look for those people, I know there’s lots out there; seeking, hoping to fill a void, wanting to believe in a God who loves them, to have a life of purpose. I’m always encouraged to know God called to me and He brought others into my life to help me find Him, so I pray I’m a someone to another’s journey in finding their meaning and purpose in Him as well.

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(Brittany Bowman) #3

Thanks for starting this thread, Carson. This is a topic I encounter often with teens online, who are starting to realize academic, romantic, parental, etc. demands can become a tiring hamster wheel. I am really looking forward to learning of additional resources others’ have found helpful in conversations.

Ravi Zacharias had a quote a while back,

“The loneliest moment in life is when you have just experienced that which you thought would deliver the ultimate & it has just let you down.”

Additionally, I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s quote, which I realized Sean shared in a thread a while back (Connect appeared in my Google search for the quote :smiley:).

Tim Keller’s sermon, Counterfeit Gods, also has great thoughts along this end.

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(Kenny) #4

I think both @Elizabeth_Bays and @Brittany_Bowman1 shared some really good stuff. :slight_smile: If you don’t mind, I’ll just deviate a little to share a nugget that has blessed me, but still on the topic of success - instead of emptiness at the top, it’s about success at the bottom.

I do feel that the definition of success has been defined very differently in today’s world as compared to the biblical definition. We tend to define success as having financial freedom, or a strong list of assets, or achieving / helping someone to achieve something. However, someone shared with me that success in the bible is none of those.

When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. (Genesis 39:3)

The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did. (Genesis 39:23)

It’s interesting because one was before Joseph became Potiphar’s attendant, while the other was when Joseph was in prison. Both mentioned about Joseph’s success, and the only common thing mentioned was “the Lord was with Joseph”.

I think it stands to reason that the clear key for success (and having that emptiness filled) is actually Jesus Christ Himself. Only the Lord can give one that kind of success that status, wealth, or relationships cannot give.

Just a thought when I looked through what @CarsonWeitnauer wrote. :slight_smile:

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(Cameron Kufner) #5

I thought I would jump in and share my own personal testimony. I used to be in the wrestling industry and becoming a professional wrestler for the WWE was my dream. I worked so hard for it and I wanted to use that platform as a tool to point others towards Christ. But, when the Lord told me he wanted me to be a pastor, I came up with all the excuses in the world as to why I couldn’t be a pastor. I sounded like Moses and Jonah did when they complained about what God had called them to do. I threw away my dreams, my goals, my lifes plans, riches, fame, the spotlight, etc. In order to gain Christ and achieve his perfect will for my life. I learned many valuable lessons, for example, trust in God, be obedient to God’s call, strive to know and do the will of God, God will take you out of your comfort zone, but one big lesson I learned is that in the end, none of it will ever matter. I thought that wrestling could bring me a good life, but I know that Jesus is the only one who can give life and give it more abundantly. I thank God every day he kept me from achieving my dreams because I know there is only much greater things in store. If you only just say “Yes, Lord, I will do as you ask. I will walk in the calling you have placed on my life.” Just wait and see what happens, it will be awesome. Billy Graham is/was one of my favorite preachers. The man had no idea how God was going to use him, but when Billy gave himself to a divine calling, divine things happened. We will never see another Billy Graham, he was one of a kind! God used him to win millions of souls to Jesus, and his life was a gift from God, as well as his example. I remind myself everyday that if I just trust God, great things will be on the other end of my faith and trusting in God. God turned Saul into Paul, Jacob into Israel, Abram into Abraham, etc.

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