STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 04/21/2014
The cabbage I have left to ferment on the basement stairs of our apartment building smells so bad that my landlady has forbidden me to make sauerkraut anywhere near her first floor dwelling ever again.
Doesn’t she understand a miracle when she smells one? I’ve been thinking about success, and it’s not been going well. Part of this stems from the fact that my current job mainly consists of writing about notable Gordon alumni, and so the question often arises in my mind: will I always be the interviewer, the one framing the question?
But I can’t help but fear I’ve been viewing success in completely the wrong way: in particular, as something that ascends. The concept runs deep in my education as a Westerner—capitalism as “climbing the ladder”—and as a person of faith who has been taught to regard the goal of heaven as a kind of elevation—the idea that going up means getting better. What if ascension can be misleading? Given that most of my life is made up of moments when I don’t feel as if I’m rising to anything beyond my bed, then would it follow that not-ascending is equal to a lack of success?
Instead, I want to be like sauerkraut. I want to be okay with people thinking that I’m going bad, fermenting on the back stairs, all the while creating a teeming ecosystem of bacteria, a biodiverse stew of sunken goodness, weighted down in order to rise up.
Ephesians 4:14 reads: “We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth.” I’m used to making this kind of mistake. I once drank rotten rice milk for five days, mistaking the sharp, blueberry-like taste for a quality my would-be gourmand’s palate described as “artisanal.”
But that was before I understood the rotting process.
My sauerkraut recipe: salt and shredded cabbage squeezed with bare hands until enough liquid forms to cover the vegetable matter in a liter-sized canning jar. Place a coffee filter and rubber band over the top and then just leave it there—for at least a month, but even up past a year. If you want to raise the stakes, add garlic. That way, even your wife will question your sanity, and will complain that the smell has forever bonded with the coats it shares a closet with.
The problem with success is that it is so often seen as inseparable from status. And while higher education might’ve taught me that status, in the celebrity, all-about-the-benjis sense, is not a healthy perspective, I still look around at my peers, my old roommates, that friend who got a job at Apple—was pursued by Apple—and I think: well, why doesn’t Apple care about me?
So—and here I speak as a spiritual lay person, not as a theologian—I’ve come to see that there could be a converse to this verse that is equally true. That is, should we seek out truths so transformative that they first look like lies?
In his book Status Anxiety, the pop philosopher Alain de Botton traces a history of the modern conception of success to explain why so many Westerners are gripped with the utter fear that we’re not being successful enough—or if we’re bold enough to admit it, not looking successful enough. He illustrates one of his key ideas in terms of physical height. If one’s community are all of relative size, then one does not feel threatened. But if just one of those peers grows taller, then we are liable to be uneasy and envious, even though, as de Botton says, “we have not ourselves diminished in size by so much as a fraction of a millimeter.” It’s not the success that’s the problem, it’s how it looks to everyone around it.
As the cabbage hangs out in its jar, smelling more and more putrid, a robust system of nutrients proliferates, creating an anaerobic environment that is generally not conducive to the kinds of bacteria that would make humans sick. It is then just a waiting game for that right moment where that smell of compost-meets-socks reaches its zenith, and can in turn be deemed a success.
bryan parys ’04 works and teaches writing at Gordon College. He apologizes to his co-worker, Lindsey, who asked, “What is that smell?” He’ll try not to leave the kimchi in the office fridge again.