Friday, December 4, 2009

Do you matter?

It is a life and death question, in a way. Do you matter? 

No, I am not asking Hamlet’s question: To be, or not to be? Hamlet was suicidal. He was obsessed with death, not life. So far as I can tell, the question of personal significance was not on Hamlet’s radar. And most people I know are glad that the tortured, brooding, insufferably indecisive Hamlet is dead!

My question is not about why I do not just kill myself. My question is about life. It is a question for the living. It is for you who want to live, but who wonder whether your life really matters.

I know you probably do not want to go there. Who does? Like me, you have probably learned how to bypass the question. But it is there, nevertheless, this honest yet uncomfortable question. It belongs to all of us. Whether we like it or not, it is a vibration under our feet, it is a tremor under our shoes, it is a shaking of the foundations beneath our every step. We might as well face it: “mattering” is a fundamental human need.

Status tells you that of course you matter. You get a good job. Or you come into money. Or you get some degrees. Or you have some success. Or you make a home and start a family. These things make the claim that, indeed, you must matter. And there is nothing wrong with any of these things. For a time, maybe a long time, these things can ward off the question. These things steady the tremors. They distract. They stabilize. They promise. But if your heart is like mine, it still wonders: Why then, if these external things mean that I really matter, won’t the dreaded question go away?

What if we look at it from the other side? What if you had nothing? Picture yourself with no status. What if it was all gone, all the things that boost your ego, all the things that prop you up, all the things that tell you that you are worth something, everything that sustains your sense of pride and human dignity? Strip these things away and stand there in naked humiliation, if you can. Now ask yourself the question. Now maybe we are getting somewhere. Would you matter if, in utter failure and loss, with no net under your unraveling tightrope, you had nothing?

I realize no one wants to really end up in circumstances like that. Yet, how many millions of people are today in those exact circumstances? My last blog was about homelessness, and they first come to mind when I think of people managing the margins of insignificance.

Do you have a car? Then you are only one of seven people in one hundred who own a car—7%. Please do not feel guilty! I do not feel guilty for having a Jeep. I am just saying that 93% of the people on the planet get through the day somehow without a car. And I am just wondering what it would do to my ego if I did not have one.

Do you make more than $10 a day? Only one in five people on our planet does. 80% of earth’s population makes it somehow on less than ten bucks a day. Please do not feel guilty if you’re in the fortunate 20%, though. I do not mention this to shame myself or you. I am just saying, today there are a whole bunch of people living life, many of them finding significance, with less than $10 a day. Could I?

If my sense of self-worth were really dependent upon how much money I made or whether I owned a car, what does that say about me? Billions of people will go to sleep tonight without a car and a ten dollar bill. And I am so accustomed to having a car and a good salary that I actually wonder if life would be worth living without them, even though I know the huge majority of my brothers and sisters spinning with me through spacetime have neither, and they have neither every day, and they will likely have neither the day they die. 

So, here is the deal for me personally, and I do not mind admitting this: I am so sheltered and privileged that I find myself asking why all these people even wake up in the morning. I stupidly want to know how they could have any joy and feel any significance day in and day out without a car and ten bucks. How can the vast majority of earth’s populace feel that their lives matter, though they lack what I feel are essential to my own sense of self-value and spiritual wellbeing?

I think this is worth pondering. Think about your family and friends. What if everything went south for you, to the point that you can no longer face them for shame? Or what if some of your family and friends start to turn away from you because they do not want to face the question of significance themselves, and they do not appreciate your humiliation reminding them to ask it? Or what if some of them merely grow philosophical about you, your misfortune, your pain, and quietly close the book on you as they plan sunshiny Fourth of July cookouts to which you do not get invited?

Perhaps, however, despite what anyone thinks, including beloved family and friends, you might actually continue to matter to yourself, no matter what. But why? It cannot be self-respect when you have lost your self-respect. Self-preservation, perhaps, but why? Just to exist day-to-day? Why wake up, shuffle around, go to sleep, and then do it all over again? What would be the point?

Perhaps you would matter to God. But how can you matter to God when he allows you to be utterly humiliated? Does he want you to be humiliated? Is he punishing you? Is it some Job-like test of your faith? Does humiliation teach me something—anything—important, something spiritual, something divine, some great “secret of life” that I am supposed to figure out through suffering degradation?

Again, believe me, I am in NO way asking this question to guilt you or myself for not trying hard enough. Trying harder does not fix some things in life, and the search for significance is, it seems to me, one of those things. And accumulating more stuff certainly does not fix it. I am asking whether you matter in the face of losing everything in order to clear the clutter. Take everything off the table, and what is left?

I have an ability to draw. I only have one piece of art that I have kept over the years, a fairly large, golden-framed, charcoal rendering of Michelangelo’s statue of David (pictured), one of the most famous works of art ever. I did not store it with my stuff in a pod in LA on Monday. I packed it carefully in my Jeep and brought it with me. Why? Yes, it is rare, in that it is the only piece of my art that I own, and since I do not really like drawing all that much, I do not anticipate creating more pieces. So it is a special piece. But it is more than that. Yes, I am proud of it and I like it. But it is more than mere pride and aesthetics. I think I value it because of the message it sends to me, and perhaps others who see it. It says that Bert matters. It says God gave me a valuable, quantifiable gift. If it did not exist, how could I prove to others or to myself that I have a significant capacity, an admirable talent, that says to me and to whomever, that I count, and that I contributed something tangible and even beautiful during my short life? But that answer bothers me.

I once participated in a men’s event about personal significance. It was a religious program that focused on your death. I am not kidding! Apparently it is all about your epitaph. The macho speakers presented a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approach to “men’s Christian spirituality,” one aimed at redoubling your effort to be “a good man,” so that your family, friends, church, and community will say good things about you at a ceremony while you lie dead in a casket. A well-meaning program perhaps, but also horribly misguided.

That is my problem with my drawing of David. Did I throw myself into that drawing—it took a month of daily, intense work—so that when I die people will say something nice about me? Was that really my motivation? Is that why I keep it and move it carefully across America? Is the value of my life to be measured by the future admiration of what I produced when I am dead and gone?

Listen. Why does what we do, whether it is art or work or giving or serving, have to have a selfish, eulogistic, ulterior motive? What does being a Christian—a term that means following Christ—have to do with doing stuff to boost my image in preparation for my funeral sermon? Can’t living for Jesus be its own good end? And isn’t it about life and living, not self-serving image-making focused on death and obituaries?

I do not think there is anything wrong with leaving a legacy, in and of itself. I particularly enjoy funerals that truly celebrate a person’s life in specific terms and stories. I hate going to those one-size-fits-all services where the person’s name is mentioned but little more about him. What a wasted opportunity to remember and grieve and celebrate and learn together! And, in my biased opinion, any eulogizer who does not take the time to sit down with grieving family and friends to ask questions, listen carefully, take good notes, and write a fitting remembrance to be delivered in the context of worship, is not worth his salt.

In the end, however, if Jesus is right, it is not about death. Death loses. In Jesus’ resurrection and in our promised resurrections, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Jesus came to give us life, here and now and forever. We pass from life to life. Death has no power. It has been swallowed by life.

2 Corinthians 5:4 For while we are still in this tent (this mortal body), we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

Moreover, the Jesus of Scripture is life. He is not just about life or the mere giver of life. He is true life itself in the here and now.

John 14:6 "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

I never read Jesus saying that real life is dependent upon external circumstances. These things together—what we eat, drink, and wear—are in his view a spiritually dangerous source of worry that steals life. Yes, we have to have them. But our incessant worry about them kills our trust in God’s providence. Jesus warns us about what “wealth” does to us. He was concerned about greed and an attitude of self-sufficiency. Unwarranted attachment to things is like barnacles on our souls. He warned us that having stuff can create arrogance and false superiority. “Having” can desensitize me to “have nots,” to the point that I can walk right past starving and sick Lazarus at my own gate and not even see him. I can be so busy building bigger barns for my bumper crop that I never consider sharing a single kernel with anyone else.

You know, the cross of Christ alone should teach us this. All that Jesus owned was stripped from his back and gambled over by Roman soldiers. He died naked with nothing. Most of the people who watched him die laughed and made sport of him. If the measure of his life’s worth was merely external circumstances, he and his life were worth nothing at all.

So was Jesus about legacy-making? Did he go around doing good so that people would say great things about him when he died? It that what really fueled his life and living?

This brings us to the key question concerning your life’s significance, as I see it, especially if you are a Christian: 

Why did Jesus’ own life matter to him?

It cannot have been popularity. He was quite popular, yes, by all biblical accounts, especially in the villages of Galilee. But the Scriptures go to great lengths to tell us that he did not trust the crowds, that he escaped them at times, and that he did not respond to flattery at all. Popularity is a fickle mistress. Where were the masses of adoring fans when he was executed?

It cannot have been success. While he learned a trade, he abandoned it. While his preaching and healing ministry could be described as successful, he had no income and he depended on a group of loyal, generous women for daily bread. He did not own a home, depending on friends in Capernaum and Bethany for lodging. He slept on the road, having “no place to lay his head.” He left behind, so far as we know, no properties, businesses, or inheritances of any kind. These things could not have been the source of his sense of self-worth. His last week involved being arrested, being incarcerated, being found guilty of sedition, and being executed for that crime—hardly a successful legacy by any earthly standard of success.

From what I can tell, Jesus’ sense that his own life mattered came from one thing: Doing the will of his heavenly Father. Nothing else seemed to matter to him. God is love, wrote John. And Jesus just loved. He loved and loved and loved, no matter what. And by love I do not mean a warm, fuzzy feeling. I mean a love that adored people while at the same time did not shrink from saying no to people, and even chastising them for their hypocrisy and heard-heartedness. He loved with a true and tough love that cuts through failure and rejection and humiliation and loss and even death. He was alive with God’s love, a love that serves and sacrifices and lays down its life for a friend.

Jesus loved large, and therefore he lived large. That was what mattered to him. And I think that is why his own life mattered to him. Love mattered so much to him that he even gave up his own life for the sake of it. Jesus lived and died for love.

Man, maybe he was on to something.

[I wrote this blog in California and posted it from Mississippi. I have a stupid cold that I got in snowy west Texas on Wednesday. Tonight’s Friday forecast here in Mississippi? Snow. Yes, seeing Mississippi friends yesterday and today has warmed me. But today, I am aware that “I left my heart” in sunny California because she made me think long and hard about life’s real significance. I didn’t find a job there, but I found something more important. I found new life and new friends. I dedicate this blog to the people on the west coast who loved me and prayed for me and helped me in innumerable ways. I pray that I contributed to your lives too. I love you, California. Stay in touch.]