I was thinking about this recently as I’ve been taking care of my brother who is now in hospice in the final stages of a losing battle with cancer and liver disease. He has deteriorated to the point to where his life is but a flicker of what it once was, totally helpless and in need of other’s care. This made me think about what makes for a fully-lived life of purpose and meaning.
Here’s what I came up with. The secret is…are you ready for the answer? Here it is…
We live a full and vibrant life by not making it about us.
Now, I’m not talking about self-loathing or being a doormat because we don’t matter. As Bill Johnson put it, “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking about yourself less.”
Jesus gave this simple maxim for life that’s profound:
25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matt.16:25 NIV)
It’s quite counter-intuitive because our natural inclination is to save ourselves, look out for number-one, etc. But doing so will ensure that we will actually waste our lives.
While the direct context of this verse is about losing our lives for Christ, we also know this from life itself. For instance, there are things in life that move us away from being self-centered and immature and toward a fully-lived life. We leave home and work for someone else. We get married and soon find out that we have to think about someone else’s needs instead of just our own. We go a step further when we raise kids. All of these stages of life requires making room for others, but add a richness to our lives. Those who live for themselves end up living more self-absorbed and shallow lives…and if that pattern continues, they’ll probably come to the end of their life alone.
My brother is a Vietnam vet. He fought in the worst part of a war he didn’t choose, during the Tet offensive in 1968. He was blown up once, survived, and received several accommodations for valor in battle. But this took a heavy psychological as well as physical toll on him.
Not much was understood about PTSD back then and we didn’t exactly treat our returning soldiers very well when they returned home. It was disgraceful, but much has been said about that so I won’t pile on here.
After my brother returned home, he started drinking heavily, doing drugs, his marriage ended in divorce after only a few years, and since then he’s been a dedicated bachelor. And while he has many casual friends, he really only has one good friend (also a dedicated bachelor) who’s been there for him through thick and thin over the last 35 years. But other than family (we’re spread all over the country), and this one friend, he has no one—no spouse, no children, no grandchildren. Fortunately, I live very close so I can be there for him. My point is, he comes very close to dying alone.
Ironically, the very thing that made my brother relationally dysfunctional and broken was his willingness to put his life on the line for others. It was his self-sacrifice that became the very thing that would eventually destroy him. Jesus’ words ring true for every vet who put him or herself in harm’s way for our benefit:
13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13 NIV)
Contrary to a popular baby-boomer mantra, he who dies with the most toys still dies. We won’t care one whit about how we put our career first or what we accomplished on our death bed. What will really matter is our relationships. The people we love and those who love us. This is foundational to living a full life.
Our success at love and relationships is totally dependent on our ability to make our lives about others. Because love, at its core, is other-centered and self-giving. It’s in dying to self that we really find our true self.
Unfortunately, ours is an increasingly self-absorbed culture that works against us finding this secret to life. We’re the product of clever marketing. The average video gamer is a 32-year old male. Many young people aren’t getting married or having kids…there’s other reasons for this, but one of them is they’re not growing up. And, before we’re too hard on them, they’ve inherited this “it’s all about me” from us baby-boomers.
We’ve forgotten civility and honor as a culture. Social media has become anything but social. We’ve never been more separated and distracted by entertainment and technology. We seem to think it’s okay to insult those who serve us in restaurants and coffee shops. We’re more politically polarized and mean-spirited than ever before. And we certainly don’t need God…or any one else for that matter…we have an app for that! 🙂
It’s possible to have every need met without ever actually interacting with real people.
But all this does is keep us distracted from the big elephant in the room…that our lives have grown more empty and will continue to do so until we can live for a greater purpose than ourselves. Certainly, there’s medication for this. There is…but that doesn’t really change anything, does it.
I say this because all these things are ingredients for living a wasted life. You may not agree, but you’ll only know for sure when you reach the end of it.
What gives our lives meaning is found in how we loved. And love ultimately comes from God.
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8 NIV).
I will finish with George Bailey. He found out that Jesus’ maxim is true. If you remember from the classic movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George always thought about others more than himself, and spent most of his adult life frustrated because every time he would try to make his own dreams come true, someone else would need his money or his time more. But, in the end, George Bailey found out he was the richest man in town. He learned what it means to live a wonderfully full life.