Warning: You Might Be Wasting Your Life

By L. Alfred James

Human beings can find their identity in some very weird things. A former classmate once told me that his uncle was the world champion in wellie boot throwing (also known as “wellie wanging”). Apparently, this uncle was very proud of this accomplishment and mentioned it often.

By the way, if you aren’t aware (and I wasn’t), wellie throwing is a sport in which contestants try to throw a rubber boot farther than anyone else.

Yes, it seems totally ridiculous. Some people take a great deal of pride in their ability to throw a wellie a great distance.

However, if you think about it, this isn’t all that surprising. Yes, it is silly on the surface. But there is an endless variety of trivial things-very arbitrary and silly things—that human beings will use to give themselves a sense of identity, to feel good about themselves.

We already know that some people depend on their athletic skills for their identity. They find their self-worth in the number of points they score on the soccer field, the basketball court, or in the hockey arena. They believe that a good person is someone who displays great ability in sports.

The odd thing here is that, if we are being completely logical, scoring lots of points in a popular sport has no more intrinsic value than scoring lots of points in an obscure sport, say, by throwing a wellie boot a long ways. Skill at throwing a basketball through a hoop (again, in terms of logic) is only supposedly more meaningful and respectable because basketball is a more popular sport. But—if we are intellectually honest—we have to admit that all of these activities are intrinsically meaningless. Their meaning is derived entirely from the crowds of people who watch them and make a big deal out of them.

Don’t pass over that last point too quickly: Human beings expend enormous amounts of energy trying to measure up to certain standards (points per game, runs batted in, assists, steals, touchdowns, passer ratings, etc.) that are entirely arbitrary, entirely dependent on the opinions of others. Whether it is moving a pigskin down a field, hitting a ball over a net, or whipping a boot into the sky, the strange thing about us is that we can find any activity to be meaningful if enough people get excited about it. And we can literally exhaust ourselves trying to master a skill (that is objectively meaningless) in order to measure up to some particular sport’s standard.

You Are Doing The Same Thing

And now, I’d like to shock you. It might seem silly to exhaust oneself in meeting arbitrary standards like those just mentioned. But I’d like to tell you that you are probably doing exactly the same kind of thing. I’d be willing to bet that you are, right now, trying to live up to some standard that you have come to believe is a valid way to measure the worth of a human being.

Remember, every human being needs a sense of self-worth. And much of our self-worth comes from people telling us that we are performing well according to some standard that some culture (or subculture) believes is important. It could be any number of things: your level of education, your career achievements, your physical fitness, your income, the size of your house, your musical ability, your fame, your looks, the number of articles/books you’ve published, etc.

It is almost a certainty that you have some group of persons, some culture (or subculture), that you are looking to for affirmation, some group whose standards you are trying to live up to.

The only human beings who do not care what other people think are sociopaths (“Who cares what these peons think?”) or people who live in a state of despair (“I give up. I’ll never measure up”).

If you don’t know, off the top of your head, what standard you are trying to live up to, you can find out by asking yourself a simple question: “What do I encourage myself with when the world beats me up and says I’m no good?” In your mind, where do you repair to when it’s cold outside? What do you remind yourself of when you are harshly criticized?

I once worked a very physically demanding job with a friend of mine whom I’d known for years, and we both shared a passion for learning, especially when it came to Greek and Hebrew. On this particular day we were asked to help load some trucks with some extremely heavy equipment. It was a task neither of us had done before, and the truck drivers that we were helping were very proud of how quickly they could do it (as they had done it many times before). And they were very mean in the comments they made to us as we often did not handle the equipment correctly, and because we were slow (compared to them) in getting the job done.

After getting a tongue-lashing from these drivers, as we were walking away, my friend said aloud, “Well, I bet these guys can’t read Greek or parse a Hebrew verb!”

As soon as he said that I was struck with the fact that he (and myself too) felt a need to re-assert our self-worth, and what we resorted to. We needed to remind ourselves that there is something in this world that we are good at, some kind of standard that we measure up to.

So, ask yourself what you do in similar situations. What do you tell yourself?

It’s Still Arbitrary

I hope you won’t be tempted to think that your own standards, whatever they are, are somehow objective. “Everyone knows that earning a living is important.” “Physical fitness is tied to health, so it must be objectively important.” Wrong.

Even if everyone in your life—or everyone in your culture—believes that your standards really are objective rock-solid measurements of a person’s worth, that doesn’t mean a darn thing. There are always exceptions. Consider the following:

  • Fitness: In some parts of the world, being overweight is seen as a bad thing because it means you are not attractive. In other cultures, it is a good thing because it is a sign of wealth. Who’s right?
  • Education: A black friend of mine has many friends in his hometown who look down on him for going to college and graduate school. They criticize him for “trying to be white.” I have also met people in the deep South who believe that an education is worse than useless because it makes you believe really stupid things. (“All that really matters is being able to work with your hands.”) Obviously, most Americans believe that being educated is extremely good. But who’s right?
  • Possessions: I have some friends who insist that the less you own, the more virtuous and respectable you are. They think that money is the source of all evil, so they live very simple lives with tiny homes and very few possessions. Many others in modern America think differently. They believe that the more you own the more respectable you are. Who’s right?

The Question I’m Asking You

Here is the question I’m leading up to: I don’t know what your standard is for measuring a human being’s worth. But, whatever it is, how do you know that you are not pursuing a standard of measurement that is just as arbitrary as these? How do you know that your standard is any more objective than, say, the distance that one can toss a wellie boot?

I’ll answer it for you: You don’t know. Whatever your standard is, it is very likely that there is some group of people, somewhere in the world, who think the opposite of you.

So, how do you know you are not wasting your life on something meaningless? How do you know you are not just fooling yourself, blindly following a crowd of people who are making a big deal out of something dumb?

The only way anyone could know is there is a God, and he has revealed himself, and told us Himself what really matters. To put it bluntly: Without a revelation from God, we are consigned to squabbling amongst ourselves about what matters most in life. But if he has revealed himself, then we have confidence that our lives are not lived in vain:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. –Micah 6:8

Of course, this does not prove that the Bible is a revelation from God, but I hope it provokes you to take the question seriously. I hope it prompts you to investigate.

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