The Comfort of Living Within a Bigger Story - Purpose and Meaning in Your Work
We’re in the heart of “awards season” with television, music, movies and their respective stars clamoring to be recognized for their significance. But in only a year last night’s winners will be forgotten and the next year’s show will cast a spotlight on someone new. If you live a while and pay attention then you notice how quickly significance fades in our world. Present events will soon be yesterday’s news.
Very often, perhaps more often than you might think, a client will say something to me like, “I just want to know that my life means something.” I really understand that idea - that desire to know my life is significant and meaningful – because I’ve felt it more times than I can count. In fact, I believe the longing to “matter” is as strong as the longing to “belong” that’s written in every human heart.
If you’ve read any of my blog entries then you’ll know that author and entrepreneur Donald Miller is one of my favorite writers and people, even though we’ve never actually met. In one of his books he talks about how the story of a tree has more impact when its actually a noteworthy tree in a great forest. His point, I think, is that the impact of a tree’s story is limited to the characteristics of that tree and what happens to it – to the effect that big trees have big stories and small trees have small stories. But if that tree is a part of something larger, a forest, then the impact of that tree is amplified, regardless of its size. In essence, that tree’s story becomes part of the story about a forest.
I think that’s the reason many people like participating in movements, join clubs or support causes, they sense that their lives can have more impact if they’re joined with the lives of other like-minded people. Still, I’ve known plenty of people who’ve done such things and still wonder if their lives matter. Being a part of something that matters for-a-moment-in-time doesn’t seem to answer the longing for significance we all carry.
The other day I was reading this story in the bible about how Moses had this very direct conversation with God. In fact, when I read it I was a bit shocked about how blunt Moses was in how he talked to God. He actually confronts God and says, “If I’m so special to you then let me in on your plans… Don’t forget, this is your people, your responsibility.” (Exodus 33:13, The Message) That made me stop and think for a minute. You see, when Moses starts the conversation I thought he wanted God to reassure him about what he (Moses) was supposed to do, you know – talk about his significance as the leader of the Israelites, but when Moses finishes stating his case it’s clear that he understands he’s just a part of something much larger that God is up to and wants God’s assurance that He’s going to finish it.
Now I’m not trying to wax religious or convince you of anything about God, my point is actually that Moses understands something that answers all his questions about the significance and meaning of his life. He knows that his story is a part in a larger story that’s going to impact and have meaning far beyond something he could do alone by himself. He never has to wonder whether his life will matter or not because he knows the responsibility for making the story impactful is in more capable hands than his own. He simply wants assurances that God’s going to take things to their completion and not leave Moses and the Israelites hanging.
When we carry the weight of our own story, the responsibility for ensuring that our lives are significant and meaningful, then it’s all on us. We alone must overcome our challenges, limitations and (often) failings in a broken and capricious world by ourselves if we are to have any assurance that our story will be worth telling. But when our story is actually a smaller tale within a larger epic, written by someone with vision and imagination, and empowered by someone with capabilities beyond our own, then we can be certain that our small story will matter. Sure, we still have to pay attention to our own small part in the tale but the outcome of the story is certain.
That difference in perspective has the power to release you and me to courageously pursue the work-life we were made to live, instead of living in (and acting out of) fear that it will total up to nothing.