Posts Tagged ‘Significance’

ripplesI enjoy watching the television show Criminal Minds. Besides the stories, the characters, and the drama, I like the quotes that are scattered throughout the episodes. The quotes allow for some deeper thought beyond the mere entertainment of the show.

While watching an episode recently, they quoted the following by Chuck Palahniuk: “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.” I thought that was particularly thought-provoking.

Let’s take the quote apart:

We all die. True enough. Regardless of what you believe about life after death, surely we can agree that there will come a time in which the bodies we now inhabit will breathe their final breath. We don’t know when that will be. We usually hope that it’s far into the future, but it could be today. What we know is that it will happen.

The goal isn’t to live forever. This may not be as universally true as the first statement. It seems that some do whatever they can to cheat death. Each generation searches for its own version of a fountain of youth in the form of medical or technological advances in hopes of delaying the inevitable. That’s understandable given our instinctive will to survive. Cryonics, for example, is “the low-temperature preservation of humans who cannot be sustained by contemporary medicine, with the hope that healing and resuscitation may be possible in the future” (Wikipedia). Those not choosing such costly, extreme measures of preservation may still attempt other procedures to make themselves look younger than they are as long as possible – a far more common occurrence.

The goal is to create something that will. This gets to the heart of significance. It’s nice to believe that you make a difference in the present to others and to the world around you in some way. It is a far different thing to work for something that outlives you. For some, that may be children and younger generations you influence. For others, it may be some grand cause that creates positive change in society. Yet others (myself included) will consider the work related to religious faith as the only real candidate to make an impact that can truly last forever.

Another quote that comes to mind on the topic of purpose as I consider the above quote is one by Mark Twain: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” I suspect that for most readers, part of the answer to why you were born has to do with the continuing impact your life may have on others after you’re gone. What ripple effect will your life have?

I don’t have any fantasy about this body living forever. I do hope, though, that the God who is eternal will use me in some small way to make a difference in a few lives that does, indeed, last forever.

worthwhileIf you’re like me, you do a lot of different things throughout the day. Some you do out of habit without thinking. Others you do because you must. Yet others you choose to do because you find great joy, comfort or satisfaction in them. Then there are some moments that happen unexpectedly because of what others do that affect you.

As I reflect on what tends to bring the greatest satisfaction to my days, it is usually the smaller, simpler moments – unplanned, unexpected and serendipitous – that are more meaningful. Most of our days, though, are focused on the big, time-consuming aspects of work or other ongoing, major responsibilities. If we aren’t careful, we may miss the smaller and potentially more significant moments.

For example, here are some moments that have made a few of my recent days meaningful and memorable:

  • My 2.5-year-old granddaughter feeding me a tiny piece of a French fry she dipped in ketchup;
  • Getting an email from a colleague saying that my blog post on reconciliation motivated him to take action to repair a relationship with a family member;
  • Hearing a funny story from my Dad on the phone;
  • Being told by a colleague in the midst of changing jobs that another recent blog post about taking chances helped her in the days surrounding that change.

As I look at the above list, none of the meaningful moments directly deal with the work I spend 10 hours a day performing. None are connected with anything I’m paid to do. Rather, they relate to relationships and/or making a positive difference in the lives of others. I didn’t plan any of them – they all happened at the initiative of someone else. I may have played some role in the chain of events that led to the moments, but the meaningful moments themselves were handed to me by others.

My fear is this – that I will be so consumed some days with the big blocks of time-consuming, planned activities that I either don’t allow time for the simple, meaningful moments like those above, or that in my rush of activity I will miss them.

A reminder to myself and anyone else who may need to hear it: make room and time in your life for what brings meaning to your days. Remember that success as the world defines it and true significance may be (and probably are) very different realities.

Know what makes your days worthwhile.

SchedulePerhaps the biggest lesson I am learning this year is one that I’ve known for a long time, yet must continually re-learn. While it has been good and helpful for me to spell out my many goals for the year related to body, mind and spirit, and to post monthly progress updates here, I have increasingly felt as the year has progressed that I simply have too many of them. I did not allow myself time to relax or to do many unplanned things for fun either by myself or with others. I’ve been busy and I’ve accomplished most of what I set out to do. I suspect all but my two reading goals will be met by the end of the year.

But being busy doesn’t prove that any of that time is meaningfully spent. Filling all of one’s waking hours with activity is no guarantee of significance, either in the short term or long term. So, in a nutshell, here is the lesson I have had to learn again for the umpteenth time:

Do not equate busyness with significance.

This applies in any area of life…

In work, are you doing a lot of things that keep you busy and seem to keep the boss happy? If so, that’s good in a way, unless you have a sense that your time could be better spent doing something with greater significance and long-term impact. Different people can find satisfaction in about any kind of work, so what others consider significant may vary from what you consider it to be. Do what you think is significant.

In education, we can spend so much time studying, pursuing degrees, and learning more for that next certification or license. A real danger is that we eventually look back and wonder where the time went and if it was all worth it, especially when so many graduates don’t even end up actually working in fields that they spent years and tens of thousands of dollars preparing to do. Is such an education a smart path, or could a more significant path be chosen?

In home and family life, busyness can easily be the enemy of relationships. With everyone in the household having their own busy schedule, little time is left for each other. That can’t be what is best for the relationships and for modeling healthy families to the next generation.

In volunteer involvement with other organizations, it is possible to get so busy that we do harm to ourselves in our perceived effort to serve others. I see it all the time in the church when calendars are filled with activities and people feel like they must participate in as many as possible to be a good church member or faithful Christian. Trust me when I say that being super busy inside the walls of the church may be the worst thing for Christians, keeping us from being salt and light outside the church walls in a needy, dark world. Certainly many avenues of volunteer service are significant in improving the lives of others, but it can also be an unhealthy drain on the one giving all the time as well as a potential distraction keeping you from doing something more significant.

Whether the busyness that fills our lives comes from work, school, extracurricular activities, or even volunteerism, we must evaluate the significance of how we spend our time and not just assume we are making a positive, significant difference in our world just because we’re busy. A genuine analysis on that basis might lead some of us to radically change our involvement in activities and organizations. It might cause us to alter our schedule so that we do what is most important instead of what we or others deem to be the most urgent. It might help us actually move from mere busyness to true significance.

And somewhere in that schedule change there must be some down time for rest, relaxation and personal renewal. Without it, you will wear down and burn out unnecessarily. How will you continue to be significant at all if you allow that to happen?

Little Things CountHow do you choose to make a difference in the lives of others?  Do you think you can make such a difference?  Do you wish you could do more?  Do you think that what you do is of little significance?

Many people, myself included, want to make a positive difference in the world.  Most don’t have a large, public stage from which to perform such acts.  Most don’t have substantial financial resources to directly impact the welfare of those less fortunate.  Most don’t hold positions of power from which they can command the use of others’ time, energy and resources to accomplish what they want.  So does that mean each of us is relegated to having an insignificant impact that lasts for only a moment and affects very few others?  I don’t think so.

A couple of related thoughts come to mind when pondering this subject.  The first has to do with our definitions of success and significance.  The second relates to our awareness (or lack thereof) of the impact we have on others.

As for success vs. significance, our American culture attempts to define success in terms of how much money we make, how many possessions we have, how much power we wield, the kind and level of job we hold, what our home looks like, etc.  We mathematically categorize people as upper class, middle class, or lower class.

If you are in the trap of defining success that way, take a moment and think about some of the most important people in your past, those who had the most influence on you, those who taught you the most and helped shaped you into the person you are.  Think about the ways you have incorporated the lessons learned from those people into your life and how you have passed on those same lessons to others.  Now think back to the material circumstances of those influential people who came to mind.  Were they financially wealthy?  Were they the ones running huge corporations or in charge of millions or billions of dollars annually?  Were they well-known public officials?  Probably not (although they could be).  Instead, they were more likely parents, teachers, grandparents, friends or mentors who cared about you, noticed you, and gave generously of themselves to enrich your life.  Were they successful as culture defines success?  Maybe, maybe not.  But were they significant?  You bet they were!

We have to start making a clear distinction between culturally defined “success” and true “significance.”  Do a quick Amazon search on the word pair “success significance” and you’ll turn up several resources that distinguish between the two.  Ultimately, you are the one who must determine the definitions of success and significance by which you measure the impact of your life (i.e., if you measure it, which I don’t recommend trying).  For me, success was long ago defined by the book Success, Motivation, and the Scriptures by William H. Cook where I came away with the definition: “Success is doing what God wants you to do in the way He wants you to do it.”  Therefore, I am fulfilling my purpose and am successful if I live up to that definition.  I have to trust that significance is an outcome, whether I see or know about the results or not.

The beauty of that definition of success is that it potentially applies to any act, big or small.  Success might be facilitated by a public platform with the chance to speak to and influence many others.  But it also comes in simple one-to-one compassion shown for another, performing an act of kindness that enriches another’s life, having private conversation where you listen more than you talk, making sure that when you do talk, the words are worth the time others are taking to hear them.

I’m not discounting the value of the public, large-scale opportunities to make a difference.  We should take advantage of those whenever possible.  I want us to understand, though, that success and significance can also come through seemingly small things that have little or no audience.

When reading through the Old Testament book of 1 Chronicles recently, I was struck by the reference in 9:31 to Mattithiah, one of the Levites, listed as being in charge of making the flat cakes.   Here in this chapter discussing the genealogy of returned exiles is recorded for all time a man who carried out his service daily making flat cakes.  In his world at the time, he was probably unnoticed by most.  He sought no fame or fortune.  He fulfilled his duty day in and day out.  He made flat cakes.  And now 2500 years later we read about him.  Mattithiah would have liked the definition of success above – doing what God wants you to do in the way He wants you to do it.  He was successful, and he was significant.  Acts of seemingly little significance are necessary, and are noticed and appreciated by God and others.

As we browse the Bible, there are so many additional reminders of the importance of doing the little things with the right attitude and motive, confident that they matter in the grand scheme of things to the only One who is worthy of judging:

  • “…whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” – Mark 10:43-44
  • “…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.  In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me” – Philippians 4:11-13
  • “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” – Colossians 3:17.
  • “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” – Psalm 84:10.

The Bible’s definition and description of success is light years away from our culture’s.

As for our awareness (or lack thereof) of the impact we have on others, we simply don’t know the impact we have because we can’t be all places at all times.  There is a potential ripple effect of our actions and attitudes on the lives of others that we will never witness or hear about.  People that influenced me were influenced by others I may never have known, and those strangers were influenced by others I have never heard of who were born in another place and time.  In a sense, we are with our lives throwing a pebble in a pond and turning to walk away before we have the chance to observe the ripples and how far they extend.  It isn’t our job to study the ripples, though.  It is our role to toss the pebble.

I’ve had wonderful opportunities in my life through my work, through travel, through meeting people of different backgrounds, and through great relationships with family and friends.  I’m open to whatever platform from which I can make a difference, big or small.  At work I am content not to be a manager, although I’ve managed teams in the past and had success with it.  I’d be content being the Wal-Mart greeter who says hello and offers you a shopping cart.  At church, I’ve taught classes more often than not over the past 40+ years, and I’ve had plenty of opportunities to preach to congregations.  But the truth is that I’m just as content to serve by providing Christian literature and resources weekly or by making coffee early enough so it’s ready when others arrive.

Don’t let a twisted culture define success or significance for you.  Realize that significance can happen one person and one small act at a time.  Going that extra step to help someone at work or home, seeing to the laborious and unheralded tasks others don’t want to do, noticing the people and circumstances that others pass by in their daily rush and taking time to invest in them in some small way – these are the kinds of acts by which others will measure your success and significance.  They will carry those ripples into the lives of others.

Little things count.