Have you ever had that twinge of pain as you realized how the years have gone by? Maybe it’s you see a friend’s child – and they’re not a child any longer. Maybe it’s the failing health of your parents and you remember when you didn’t want to cross your father. Once I get over the shock of the thought I often am gripped by the mark that I’m leaving in the world. So what have I been doing with my life? Does it matter? As the pizza commercial asked “What do you want on your tombstone?”
We’re all searching for significance to ourselves, to others, to our community and to our world. While The Search for Significance is clearly a Christian book with a God centered view of how we’re significant there are a surprising number of practical discussions about how to live in this world. It starts with receiving love.
In our ideal world view we see love as something that is received perfectly any time that it is given. However, love is like any other kind of communication (verbal or non-verbal) and can therefore be misunderstood, blocked, or rejected. One of the most heart wrenching challenges is to be in a relationship with someone where they’re not able to receive the love that you are providing.
Having been in a relationship like this I can tell you that it’s maddening to try to figure out how to let love through. I’d find a way that love would eak its way past the walls and barriers only to find that the walls and barriers would get better able to stop love from penetrating. Love is so incompatible with their self-image that it hurts to let it through. And so sometimes the problems with giving and receiving love isn’t on the giving end. Sometimes there’s so much brokenness it is simply not possible for it to work its way through.
Parental love is supposed to be unconditional. It’s supposed to be love that perseveres whether you’re doing what your parents want or approve of – or not. However, too often in this world parents make the mistake of not knowing how to deliver unconditional love to our children, making them hear only that our love of them is conditional on their performance. I personally struggle to help my children know that they’re loved even when they do something stupid – like getting so drunk that they can’t stand up – much less function normally.
Performance-based love isn’t love at all. Instead is often a reflection of the need for the parent to be seen as someone. (See Must-be-seen-as in The Anatomy of Peace.) It’s likely something they caught from their parents. The problem is that this performance based love leaves a hole in us – a hole that prevents us from feeling secure enough to be vulnerable. (See How Children Succeed for secure detachment.)
Dysfunctional Family Tree
We all grew up in a dysfunctional family. I’ve not met a person yet who hasn’t got some sort of dysfunction in their family tree. Perhaps it’s a crazy aunt who no one ever talks about. It could be the uncle that never grew up. It might be closer to home in your own parents. Maybe it wasn’t something “major” like drinking or drugging but everyone it seems has some level of dysfunction in their family. (For more on drugs and covering pain see Chasing the Scream.)
The problem with dysfunction in our family tree is that it blocks us from receiving (and giving) love. When we need love most – when we feel the most vulnerable and unworthy – love isn’t something we can accept because we’ve been taught that it is those times when we’re unlovable. The truth is that we’re always lovable if we’re willing to let it in.
Filling a Leaky Bucket
Sometimes we try to fill the holes in our soul with leaky buckets. That is we try to solve a pain by compensating – we don’t try to go back to heal the hurt we felt instead we try to cover it. That’s where many addictions come in. They’re covering a deep seated pain that the object of the addiction can never address. Whether the coping strategy that we use ever rises to the level of an addiction or not, a coping strategy doesn’t address the problem, it compensates for it.
If you feel unworthy so you go have frequent, meaningless sexual encounters you get the chemical wash from sex and the ability to say that others find you attractive. It doesn’t solve the underlying feeling of unworthiness but it numbs the pain for a while. The problem is that it only fixes it for a while and eventually you end up regretting the decisions and feeling even more unworthy – leading to more activities that bring more guilt and shame. (See Daring Greatly for more on guilt and shame.)
Fixing the Bucket
It’s easy to try to add another encounter, another drink, or another drug to our bucket and feel better for a while. It’s much harder to take a step back – to take a step out of ourselves – and see where the holes are. It’s harder to recognize and admit that we do have weaknesses and faults. We all have flaws. Recognizing these is risky because we risk becoming unlovable to see them – if we’ve been taught that we’re only lovable when we’re good. The first step – the step of recognition – is in some ways the hardest part. It’s no accident that the first step of a twelve step program is one of recognition – that your life has become unmanageable.
If you can see the holes in your bucket you at least have a chance at plugging them – though that isn’t to say that the process of plugging the holes is easy. Plugging the holes in your bucket is about finding ways to plug those holes in your soul that weren’t filled when you were growing up. That might be about finding someone who can demonstrate unconditional love. It might be finding someone who can teach you how to forgive yourself for the mistakes that you’ve made. It might be someone who can practice acceptance of you. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)
There’s no “Fix a flat” for the holes in your bucket of life. There’s no magic formula that will fix any hole in your bucket no matter where it is. That’s why the short term fixes are so appealing. With sex, drugs, alcohol, or eating it doesn’t matter what the problem is. It seems to go away for a moment and you don’t have to find and fix the root problem.
While Diffusion of Innovations may praise the innovators and early adopters for their cosmopolitan-ness we all need to feel like we belong. We need the community that comes with being human. Change or Die emphasized how the community of released prisoners helped prevent recidivism – by being a community. Changes that Heal describes people who can’t make emotional attachments as being in a perpetual state of hunger. They’re unable to attach to others and thereby to fulfill what God desires for us all – to be in relationship with one another – to belong.
Unfortunately as Bowling Alone describes, we’re not getting our belonging from the social clubs that our parents used to be members of. Fewer of us are joining clubs – and fewer of us are getting involved in the clubs – where we can feel like we belong. We’re not building communities around us of deep connections. We’re cocooning into our houses. We’ pull into our garages and close the garage door before we get out of our cars to prevent the need to interact with others – including our neighbors. It’s no wonder that we’re suffering from loneliness and a lack of belonging.
Sure we have Facebook and our “friends.” However, the research seems to indicate that for most of us we’re depressed by seeing our Facebook feed because we’re able to see our friends living their lives and we wonder what we’re doing with our lives. It’s not that before our age and Facebook that people didn’t travel to Fiji or jump out of planes. It’s that we didn’t know about it – unless they cornered us into watching a boring slide show about it.
True belonging, the ability to be accepted by our friends, is a fundamental need of every human. Recently I sent out my yearly update to my LinkedIn connections. It’s roughly analogous of a professional Christmas letter. It talks about the things that I’ve been doing. It talks about the challenges I’m facing. It asks for feedback from the folks I know about the course I’m taking. I only send it once a year. I don’t want my connections hammering me every day or week with their goings on and I don’t want to do that to them either. I ultimately settled on the idea that once a year was the right frequency.
What was interesting is the three people who wrote me to ask to get off of my mailing list. These are all folks that I had a LinkedIn Connection with. They didn’t even want one update a year. My response was to get unconnected with them. If the extent of our relationship doesn’t support one update a year, how could it possibly be useful to me for anything that I need – or that they need from me? In our world we’re more connected than we’ve ever been. We have hundreds of Facebook friends – but all too few of us have friends that we can share the deepest desires of our heart or our deepest fears. We belong when someone else knows who we are – and accepts us for who we are.
One of the paradoxes of life is that everyone wants to control – but no one wants to be controlled. Glasser talked about how we seek to inflict our choices on others – and control them – in his book Choice Theory. J. Keith Miller dedicates an entire book to the impact of control in Compelled to Control. McGee’s perspective on control is that we seek to control ourselves. We see our close relationships as reflections on us and as a result we attempt to control those around us. The irony of this is that we can’t control ourselves so we seek to try to control others so that we can create the greater illusion of control.
You may – or may not – find significance in the eyes of the world. However, it’s worth seeing if you can figure out your significance to God through The Search for Significance.