By L. Alfred James
I have an important question for you. In fact, this is one of the most important questions you will ever think about in your entire life. Ready? Here it is:
What makes your life meaningful?
It’s such a simple question that it is easy to misunderstand it. And most people do exactly that. They don’t really understand what is being asked. I’m not asking, what makes you happy? If I were, you might respond by telling me about puppies, rainbows, or peanut butter cup ice cream.
But I’m not asking that question. I’m asking you about something much deeper. I’m asking about what you depend on to give your life a sense of meaning.
Surprisingly, a lot of us are completely unaware of what we are depending on. It can take some serious introspection to figure it out. We are unaware of the fact that our ultimate source of meaning is found, say, in our relationship with a certain person (such as a child or spouse), in an achievement we are pursuing (partnership in a firm, becoming an executive manager, getting published, etc.).
If you honestly don’t know how you would answer this question, then it might be helpful for you to work through a series of other questions that can help you to understand yourself better:
- When you endure a lot of criticism, what do you think about to encourage yourself? When the world is harsh and cold, where do you repair to? When you need to feel better, what do you mentally focus on?
- When you have nothing to do, and no one to talk to, and your smartphone’s battery is dead, what do you think about? Where do your thoughts tend to drift?
- What do you think about during tough times? When you are struggling with finances, or relationship difficulties, or physical ailments, what keeps you going?
- What do you hope for in the future? What do you enthusiastically envision?
- What do you most often think about at night, before you drift off to sleep?
- Where do you find your identity? When you meet someone new, what are you hoping to tell them about yourself?
- What is there in your life that, if you lost it forever, would throw you into a deep depression or despair?
It is not likely that one single question from this list will help you discern what you depend on for ultimate meaning in life. But if you work through all of them, it is likely that you will.
There are many different things that people depend on for ultimate meaning. Some of the most common things:
- A marriage partner (or romantic relationships)
- Achieving a certain level of wealth
- Achieving a certain status as an athlete (basketball, baseball, hockey, football, MMA fighting, etc.)
- Achieving a certain status as a professional (getting the most sales in your department/company/district, winning an award, etc.)
- Achieving a certain level of fame
- Getting a college degree, master’s degree, doctorate, etc.
- Becoming skinny
- Acquiring possessions
- Becoming muscular
- Mastering a musical instrument
- Mastering a foreign language
Everyone Worships Something
There is no end to the list of things that might be your ultimate source of meaning.
So, what is it for you? What is your ultimate?
Unless you are in a state of complete despair, I promise you that there is something that serves this role in your life. Whether you realize it or not, you have an ultimate. The only people who can honestly say that they do not are those who are on the brink of suicide. Only someone in the depths of absolute despair can honestly say, “My life has no meaning at all.”
While this might seem like useless navel-gazing, there is a point to it. It is extraordinarily important to understand what your ultimate source of meaning is. Why? Because whatever gives you ultimate meaning is actually the object of your worship. It is your god. This is why Chris Tomlin once said, “Worship isn’t really a churchy word. Everyone worships something. And what you worship is whatever you place the highest value on. It’s what you order your choices by. What you surrender your will to.”
Everyone has something that is of ultimate important to them, something that they live for, their reason-for-being. Even atheists.
Again, what is it for you? Whatever it is, it has gigantic implications for your life. You derive your meaning from it, and your sense of well-being is intimately connected to it. You can’t live without it. Functionally, it is your god.
What Should We Worship?
Now step back and see how this fits with your internal sense of propriety. Is there not something amiss happening when a human being reveres some earthly object to the degree that they worship it? Is there not something improper going on when a human being ascribes cosmic significance to, say, money, success, good looks, or fame?
For instance, consider a middle-class man who ascribes such huge importance to money. This doesn’t mean he’s rich. It just means he wants to be. In fact, he might consider himself a failure because he is only middle-class. Growing up, I lived near a farmer who thought this way. He ran a moderately successful family farm. Indeed, he had done so for decades. I was shocked one day to learn that he had committed suicide. A neighbor told me that he was depressed because he couldn’t get his farming business to grow at a pace that made him feel successful. Why would this drive him to suicide? Partly because his parents found their identity in their financial status, and partly because he had followed in their spiritual footsteps, depending on wealth to prove that he was a worthwhile person.
I’ve seen the same thing time and time again, when people make a god out of their spouses, careers, children, education, musical skills, etc. Every false god will lead you down a path of destruction.
This prompts a serious question: Since all human beings worship something, what are they supposed to be worshiping? Where should they find their sense of meaning? Should they be fooling themselves into thinking that earthly things have some kind of transcendent value (and are worthy of worship)? Or is there something else that really does merit such worship?
I’ll leave it to you to answer that question.