Not long ago, I was going through the day’s mail and noticed that my husband had received an alumni magazine from his alma mater, Utah State University’s Huntsman College of Business. Splashed across the front of the magazine was a question that really annoyed me: How will you change the world? Speaking to none but the dirty dishes in the sink, I replied out loud and emphatically, “I won’t!” At least not in the way the article’s author meant. According to the author, “In a rapidly changing global economy, identifying opportunities, becoming comfortable with risk, and pursuing your passion can indeed lead to lives of meaning and changing the world.” (Huntsman Alumni Magazine, Spring 2015, p. 8)
So why did this question get under my skin? I guess it was because I’ve run into this mindset more than a few times. This way of thinking implies that the only way to live a “[life] of meaning” is to discover a cure for cancer, design some spectacular technology, come up with a billion-dollar idea for a company, or something else very grand and very public. In other words, the significance of your life depends on what you produce. Really?
The world is changed in millions of different ways each day, none of which is written up in any article. While neither you nor I might do anything that will get published in a magazine, we each change the world in our own ways every day. Every time I hug one of my grandchildren, I change their world by letting them know they are loved. When I watch my granddaughter while my daughter is at work, I change the world by allowing my daughter to go to work knowing that her daughter is safe and in a place where she is loved. The hours of work my husband puts into maintaining our yard changes the world by making it more beautiful. When my dad suffered a traumatic brain injury, my mom changed the world by staying by his side at the hospital all day long, every day. Her continued devotion to and advocacy for Dad as he slipped into dementia changed his world dramatically. When my depression was at its worst 30 years ago, my neighbor would occasionally come to the door around noon with plate of food. Somehow she knew I probably wouldn’t have made lunch for myself. That certainly changed my world. My friend who is dying from stomach cancer with incredible grace, and even good humor, has been an extraordinary example to me of living life with meaning. She has definitely changed my world. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. In the same way, you, too, are changing the world every day.
The biggest problem with believing that to live a meaningful life one must be successful according to the world’s definition is that it rests on the false assumption that we are what we do. In his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, author Peter Scazzero points out that this lie was the basis for the first of the temptations Satan presented to Christ.
The devil said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread” (Matthew 4:3). Jesus had apparently done nothing for thirty years. He had not yet begun his ministry. He seemed like a loser. Nobody believed in him. He was hungry. What contribution had he made to the world?
Our culture asks the same question. What have you achieved? How have you demonstrated your usefulness? What do you do? Most of us consider ourselves worthwhile if we have scored sufficient successes—in work, family, school, church, relationships. When we don’t, we may move harder and faster, go inward into depression out of shame, or perhaps blame others for our predicaments. (p.75)
I really hate to fill out forms asking for personal information. Inevitably there is a box for “Occupation.” I never know what to put there, and it always makes me feel inadequate. My last paid position was as an instructor for an undergraduate Learning Theories class while I was a grad student. That was almost 10 years ago. Just as bad is the making-conversation question “So what do you do?” I am at a loss in both situations. What I do with my days doesn’t fit in a box or qualify as a small-talk answer. I do things like grandmothering, volunteering at church, and blogging. But there isn’t a single label that describes what I’m doing with my life. Mainly I’m just trying to be the best human being I can be, endeavoring to know and follow God’s will for me as best I can. Maybe someday I’ll have the audacity to list “human being striving to do God’s will” in that Occupation box; it would certainly be interesting to see what would happen if I used that answer in a getting-to-know-you conversation!
For me, the what-do-you-do inquiry triggers a question of even greater import—Who am I? Unfortunately, I’m not really sure how answer that question, either. Scazzero writes, “God has shaped and crafted us internally—with a unique personality, thoughts, dreams, temperament, feelings, talents, gifts, and desires. He has planted ‘true seeds of self’ inside of us. They make up the authentic ‘us.’ We are also deeply loved. We are a treasure.” (p.75)
It’s that “authentic” me I find elusive. I fear I am so caught up in what the world declares is a meaningful life that I am blind to my own significance.
To define myself as a [daughter] immensely loved by God, to find my personal worth in my . . . Father, who says of me, ‘You are my [daughter], [Eileen], whom I love; with you I am well-pleased,’ apart from anything I do is revolutionary. [The world] . . . tell[s] me that only possessions and talents and applause from other people are sufficient for security. Jesus models surrender of my will to the love of the Father as the true anchor for who I am.” (Scazzero, p. 77)
In God’s family, success is defined as being faithful to his purpose and plan for your life. We are called to seek first his kingdom and righteousness (see Matthew 6:33). Everything else, he promises, will be added to us. Moreover, God declares we are loveable. We are good enough in Christ (See Luke 15:21-24).
Discipleship, then, is working these truths into our practical everyday lives. (Ibid., p.104)
So how will I change the world? By changing myself. By accepting the gift of good-enoughness that comes through Christ’s atonement. By using the lenses of patience and long-suffering to define myself as God defines me. Now that would be a change of seismic proportion. Who knows what kind of aftershocks might follow!
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