I saw a meme on Facebook the other day that read: “Join a Hilarious Adventure of a Lifetime! Work, Buy, Consume, Die.” It’s funny because it’s true…so it’s also not really that funny. Reflecting on it a bit further, I find it to be a provocative comment on what seems to be the norm in modern culture, especially in the United States.
We go to school. If we’re lucky, we get a job related to our degree and/or interests. Then we work for roughly forty years until we’re able to retire, which (if I understand retirement commercials correctly) is the time of life we all look forward to, the time we really get to do the things we love, spend time with our families, and enjoy some peace and quiet for our remaining fifteen or twenty-ish years (and that’s if we’re statistically fortunate; the current average life expectancy in the U.S is only seventy-eight).
This meme got me thinking about how we choose to live our lives and from where we derive meaning. What are the things to which we devote the most time and energy? For most people, at least based on what I’ve observed, it’s our job. We spend more hours at work than we do at home with our families, or relaxing, or enjoying hobbies, or in church.
I don’t want to look back when (God willing) I’m pushing eighty and see a life full of work- or money-related stress, too little time off, and too much energy put toward material things that ultimately fade away. I don’t want to live the life of the meme.
I want to do well in my work, sure; I want to be proud of what I accomplish, and I hope to accomplish something worthwhile. But ultimately, what I do for a living, what I buy with my money, and whatever successes or accolades I achieve (degrees, promotions, awards)—in the end, these things don’t define me. I’m not saying that our actions don’t shape or reflect our character; of course they do. But the “American Dream,” or maybe I should call it the “Retirement Dream,” is ultimately unfulfilling: work long and hard, save your money, settle down…and then what?
I recently read an article in The Atlantic called “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.” The article tells of Jewish psychologist and neurologist Viktor Frankl who was sent to a Nazi concentration camp in 1942 and lived to write about it in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. One of the major points of his book is that the difference he observed between those in the camps who lived and those who died was a sense of meaning. The article includes one quotation in particular from Frankl’s book that resonates with me:
Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is.
As a Christian, my cause, my purpose, my meaning lies with Christ. But it’s not just for me; I believe that meaning for all of humanity is found in Christ. It is our inheritance, freely given to us, in which we are created to participate. Everything else is secondary. And that, far more than any “American Dream” or narrative of hard work and success, gives me profound comfort.