“Is My Life Worth Living?”

“The purpose in a man’s mind is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Proverbs 20:5, RSV).

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, RSV).

IT IS OBVIOUS THAT purpose can guide life decisions, influence behavior, shape goals, offer a sense of direction, and create meaning. For some, meaning is defined by what they do—doctor, lawyer, construction worker, teacher, welder, chef. Others seek meaning through spirituality or religious beliefs. Unfortunately, some never find meaning for their lives. I cannot think of a more sad state than existing without knowing why you exist, or where you’re going.

A Matter of Worldview

We are talking about worldview. Everyone holds a worldview, which Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) define as “the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of and for the world and is the basis of our decisions and actions.” Sire (2015) says a worldview is a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or unconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic makeup of our world. [Italics added.]

I agree with Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) that truth is absolute; if not, then nothing is true. They consider (p. 64), “If a worldview is true, we can expect to find at least some external corroborating evidence to support it. This does not mean that something is true because there is evidence for it, but rather evidence will be available because something is true.” [Italics added.] It is critical to note that evidence is always subject to interpretation, and interpretation also can be subject to bias. As it’s been said many times, worldviews function somewhat like a pair of eyeglasses. When you begin wearing glasses, the rims can be quite distracting. In a short while, however, you lose your awareness of the rims and even the lenses. You forget you’re wearing glasses.

Accordingly, we can lose perspective on our assumptions, presuppositions and biases, especially with the passage of time. Entwistle (2015) warns us that assumptions and biases affect data interpretation. He said, “…what we see depends, to some degree, on what we expect and are predisposed to see.” (p. 93) Our ability to know is both dependent upon and limited by the assumptions of our worldview. In my Christian worldview, I recognize God as the unique source of all truth, and that this truth is absolute. In other words, it is not relative, but it is universal and unchanging. Truth is not absolute on its own merits; rather, it derives ultimately from God. I do not believe, however, that the Bible contains all that we need to know: e.g., we don’t consult the Bible to understand how to change a tire or perform brain surgery. Scripture does contain everything we need to know regarding God, the spiritual life, and morality.

We begin developing our worldview as young children, first through interactions within our family, then in social settings such as school and church, and from our companions and life experiences. Increasingly, our media culture is playing a key role in shaping worldview. We are a culture saturated with powerful media images in movies, television, commercials, music, gaming, and social media. What we watch, listen to, and read, impacts the way we think.

The lack of a sound basis for the meaning of life can cause a gnawing sense of being unfulfilled. This perception underlies everything we do. For example, we can be “busy” with many things, yet wonder if what we’re doing makes any real difference. Life, by its very nature, presents itself one day at a time: a random and unconnected series of activities and events over which we seem to have little or no control. If a sentiment of disconnectedness develops in our everyday existence, boredom sets in deep within our soul. To be “bored” does not mean we have nothing to do; it means that we question the value of the things we are so busy doing. Here is the great paradox of life: Many of us are busy and bored at the same time!

Symptoms of a Lack of Purpose

Interestingly, boredom might be rooted in resentment. If we run around all day like a crazy person, doing this and that, yet wonder if our busyness means anything to anyone, we easily feel used, manipulated, or exploited. Is this not often how a parent feels when he or she is constantly doing for their children, but the children appreciate nothing? In this state of mind, we begin to see ourselves as victims pushed around and made to do things by people who do not acknowledge us or take our contributions seriously. An inner anger starts to well up inside us—an anger that eventually settles into our hearts. Left unresolved, this anger leads to resentment, which has an effect on us much like a poison.

Perhaps the most damaging expression of our looming sense of unfulfillment is depression. When we start to believe our life has little or no effect on those around us, we can easily fall prey to sadness, depression, and regret. This can morph into guilt. It must be our fault that no one appreciates us, right? Perhaps we don’t do enough. Maybe we did the wrong thing. We begin to think it’s all our fault. This guilt is not always connected to just one event; sometimes it is connected with life itself. We feel guilty just for being alive. The realization that the world might be better without us becomes a sort-of “sub plot” to our life. We look in the mirror and, “Is my life worth living?”

Boredom, resentment, and depression are all symptoms of our sense of being disconnected. We cannot help but see life as a broken connectedness. We feel as though we don’t belong. Not surprisingly, this often leads to loneliness. This is what is meant by being in a room full of people at a gathering but feeling all alone. We experience this  because we don’t really feel like we’re part of the community. And it is this paralyzing sense of separation from others that establishes the core of much suffering in the world. When in this state of feeling cut off from the community, we quickly lose heart. Ultimately, if we don’t address this sentiment, we see ourselves as passive bystanders. We tend to live life “on the bench.”

Americans Increasingly Turn to Suicide

There is now a potential for us to believe our past, even our present, no longer carries us to the future. Instead, we go through life worried, cut off, without any promise that things will improve. Perhaps this is at the crux of one’s decision to commit suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide was the tenth-largest cause of death in America in 2017, claiming the lives of more than 47,000 people. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54. There were more than twice as many suicides (47,173) in the United States in 2017 as there were homicides (19,510).

No Sense of Roots

Henri Nouwen wrote, “Most of us have an address but cannot be found there. We know where we belong, but we keep being pulled away in many directions, as if we were still homeless.” I had a t-shirt years ago that had a rather interesting quip written on it: I Have Gone to Find Myself; If I Return Before I Get Back Keep Me Here. Does this not address the very struggle we all face when attempting to define the meaning of our existence. This “rudderless” life leads to our being tossed to and fro on the ocean in search of a port—any port—in the storm. For me, this pervasive sense of meaninglessness and loneliness led to some rather damaging behavior—infidelity, job hopping, geographic changes, and addiction. I learned that when we feel an inescapable sense of disconnectedness we will being to lie to ourselves. Not only about what the meaning of life is (or should be), but about the serious damage our addictive behaviors and activities of distraction are causing—both to us and to those around us.

What is the Answer?

If you are familiar with Scripture, you will likely remember that Jesus does not respond to our worry-filled way of living by saying that we should not be busy with everyday activities. Instead, His response is quite different. He asks us to shift the point of our focus—to essentially relocate the “center” of our attention, to change our priorities. Jesus wants us to stop focusing on “many things,” and instead focus on the “one necessary thing.” He does not preach of a change in activities as a means of finding a meaningful life. That would be akin to putting a temporary bandage on a bleeding wound. When we ignore critical wounds in the flesh, we risk developing a puss-filled infection that can spread to our bloodstream, thereby causing a “systemic” infection.

Instead, Jesus speaks of a change of heart. This change is what’s needed to make everything different even while everything appears to remain the way it was. Let me be clear: Many of us are living lives that are in need of drastic change. That’s a given. When we focus on the one necessary thing, we begin to tap into the resources needed to realize an effective change in our direction. This is what Jesus meant by His comment to the disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? …do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:25, 31, 33, RSV).

I believe it is only when we understand the importance of Jesus’s urgent instructions to make God the center of our lives that we can better see what is at stake. We will understand who we are, why we are here, and why things happen the way we do. This cannot be achieve through our human wisdom or understanding. We can’t grasp the things of the Spirit while focusing on the flesh. A heart set first on the Father’s kingdom is also a heart that is properly oriented toward the spiritual life. Thankfully, Jesus provided an exemplar for us to follow when refocusing our attention in this manner.

We see that Jesus was not merely a zealot who ran around the Holy Land espousing some “new wave” approach to life. He was not interested in seeking a “self-fulfilled” life. Rather, everything we know from Scripture is that Jesus was concerned with only one thing: To do the will of the Father. From His very first public utterance in the Temple, He made this abundantly clear. “‘Why were you searching for me?’” he asked. “’Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?'” (Luke 2:49, NIV). The footnote provided for this verse at blueletterbible.org says, “be about my Father’s business.” Jesus was quick to tell his disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19, RSV). In other words, Jesus wants us to understand that without God nothing is possible. Moreover, with God nothing is impossible.

Consider this thought: Jesus is not our Savior simply because of what He said to us or did for us of His own accord. He is our Savior because what He said and did was said and done in obedience to the Father. Paul expressed this in Romans 5:19: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19, RSV). This speaks of an all-embracing love—for the Father and for us. We cannot understand the impact of the richness of Jesus’s ministry until we see how everything He did was rooted in one thing: Listening to the Father and obeying out of the power of a perfect and unconditional love.

When Jesus said He is the way, the truth and the life, He was not merely stating that everything He said was true. It was, of course, but He meant something much deeper. He was not speaking of an idea, concept, or doctrine, but He was talking about true relationship. I believe that’s why we cannot quash the nagging sense of meaningless alone; rather, it must be understood through relationship with Jesus and with the Father. It is only by first loving God, then loving our neighbor as ourselves, that we can hope to find the connectedness many of us are desperately searching for day after day. When our lives become a continuation of Jesus’s life and ministry, we begin to see the paramount importance of being connected with Him and the Father in order to experience connectedness to our “selves” and others.

Concluding Remarks

It is in and through the Father’s kingdom that we find the Holy Spirit, who will guide us, heal us, challenge us, and convict us. This is the very mechanism for renewal. Moreover, this is not merely hitting the “heavenly lottery.” The words, “all other things will be given you as well” express that God’s love and care extends to our whole being. When we set our sights on Him. we come to understand how God keeps us in the palm of His hand. We learn not to worry, project, or become hopeless. We avoid the trap of emotional upset, including anxiety and depression. We become lifted up into God’s unconditional love and care. A change in our hearts leads to a change in our perspective, and this is the very meaning of developing a Christian worldview.

References

Entwistle, D. (2015). Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd Ed. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books

Phillips, W., Brown, W., and Stonestreet, J. (2008) Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview, 2nd Ed. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing.

Sire, J. (2015) Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept, 2nd Ed. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press.

The Roof

Up here
on the roof,
I am tall,
taller than all,
at the apex:
not of height,
nor of stature;

just here
at the edge
where anything
is possible:
creativity,
destruction,
enlightenment,
apostasy;
whatever I choose
begins up here
at the edge
of heaven and hell

where God waits,
and angels watch;
where birds soar
without awareness
of my struggle,
or my questions,
or my potential,
good or bad;

below, a community
ekes out its
existence,
parading
up and down
the streets
and avenues,
with no inkling
of what comes
next;

life in
pieces, its
very blood spilled
on the macadam
of tomorrow
by the handguns
of a thousand
angry, disenfranchised men,

rudderless,
willing to take
everyone
with them
into the
crevasse where
not even light
can escape.

©2017 Steven Barto

The Roof (Reprise)

Up here
on the roof,
I am tall,
taller than all,
at the apex:
not of height,
nor of stature;

just here
at the edge
where anything
is possible:
creativity,
destruction,
enlightenment,
apostasy;
whatever I choose
begins up here
at the edge
of heaven and hell

where God waits,
and angels watch;
where birds soar
without awareness
of my struggle,
or my questions,
or my potential,
good or bad;

below, a community
ekes out its
existence,
parading
up and down
the streets
and avenues,
with no inkling
of what comes
next;

life in
pieces, its
very blood spilled
on the macadam
of tomorrow.

©2017 Steven Barto

The above is a revised version of my initial poem The Roof. Something was missing. Then it hit me: This is a commentary on the increased gun violence in America. It is not an anti-gun poem. It is not an anti-Second Amendment poem. It is an annotation on an extremely prevalent and entirely serious problem. American citizens are killing each other at a rate higher than in any other industrialized nation. We’re using every imaginable weapon and method, from bludgeoning to strangulation; from stabbing to poisoning. We just happen to be using GUNS at an alarming rate. The closing stanza uses the phrase “its very blood spilled on the macadam of tomorrow.” THIS reference is about gun violence.

The Neighborhood Has Seen Better Days

This is a piece I wrote using the writing prompt, “The Neighborhood Has Seen Better Days.”

I’m twelve. Feels like I’ve been twelve forever. Time has been standing still this whole, hot steamy summer. There’s been plenty of chances to sit here on my steps and watch the cars whizz by. Oh, but the motorcycles. They are wonderful. Most people today ride without helmets. Hair flying about. Tee-shirts. Shorts. So cool. So absolutely dangerously cool. I’m so happy lately, living in a fine house with a wonderful mom, belly full, shoes on my feet. Plenty of shoes. Pretty shoes. Lots of dresses and dollies and teddy bears. My room is so nice and warm and purple. I think I even have six pillows. There’s nothing I love better than to climb up on my bed and bury myself in my blankets and dream of days when the neighborhood was a nicer place.

But today, right now, I am sitting on my stoop watching Mrs. Pauley argue with a man in a black suit holding a piece of paper. I remember playing hopscotch with Mrs. Pauley’s kids, racing bikes around the block, selling lemonade at our corner stand, and lazily brushing the dog on her front porch. Lilly, her middle daughter, was my best friend. I had her over to my house for a sleepover at least half-a-dozen times. Lilly kind of liked Tom, Ernie Conrad’s son. Ernie Conrad ran the neighborhood barber shop. My brother Steve was good friends with Tom. They spent many hot summer days in the air-conditioned shop reading Archie comics and sucking on Tootsie Roll Pops. The shop had mirrors on both walls, and the boys would stand and look at themselves in the never-ending reflections. Tiny copies of themselves over and over without end.

But poor Mrs. Pauley. She is right in the middle of trying to live her life. Raising a family of six. Happily married. Always smiling. Buying Girl Scout cookies. Feeding the birds. Serving as a Block Parent. A regular at PTA. Taking us to the community swimming pool, and even braving the cold in December to take us ice skating. A mom’s mom. A real nice lady. So it was very sad when her husband passed away. He had a great job at the railroad. My dad said Mr. Pauley made a lot of money. Things were fine at first, then the trouble started. The two-car family soon became a one-car family. My friend Lilly started going hungry. She ate at our house a lot. She told me her brothers and her sister were living with Mrs. Pauley’s parents. Notices started being posted on the front door. The porch wasn’t swept. Someone stole the wicker chairs. The windows remained filthy. I didn’t see Lilly as much. In fact, she missed a lot of school.

Which brings me to the afternoon I was sitting on the front steps of my porch. It was hot out. No air was moving. Mrs. Pauley was standing in the doorway, looking rather upset. There was a policeman and a county sheriff standing on either side. A man with a briefcase and handful of papers was arguing with Mrs. Pauley. She was starting to cry. I could tell the county sheriff was being sympathetic. Mrs. Pauley pleaded one last time, asking “Isn’t there something I can do?” The official-looking man in the dark suit shook his head no and reached out to post a paper on the door. I could see what it said from across the street. NOTICE TO VACATE.

I looked up and down the street. Trash littered the gutters. A car sat in front of Mr. Baker’s house with four flat tires. There was an empty lot where Ernie Conrad’s barber shop used to be. Most of the front porches were piled up with old furniture, busted exercise equipment and beat-up bicycles. There were broken mini blinds in the windows, and many had no curtains.

It seems the neighborhood had seen better days.

©2015 Steven Barto

Things I’ve Learned About Human Nature

  1. When our communities were tribal-based, the good of the clan came before the good of the individual.
  2. Man is a social animal, and he is not designed for isolation.
  3. There is a God-shaped hole within all of us that cannot be filled by sex, booze, drugs, gambling, career, cars or big houses. I’ve heard this concept described as the “hole in the soul.”
  4. It’s better to leave a legacy than a personal history.
  5. When we choose to counsel and help others whose life has gone off tracks, our past becomes an asset rather than a liability.
  6. Unconditional love is known as affection without any limitations. It is sometimes associated with other terms such as true altruism, or complete love.
  7. Unfortunately, acts of evil aren’t terrifyingly inhumane, but rather all too human.
  8. Man is hard-wired to take credit for everything good in his life, and to blame God for everything wrong in his life.
  9. We are a snapshot or facsimile of God. Our godlikeness is the path to our greatest fulfillment.
  10. We’ve all heard that the unexamined life is not worth living, but consider too that the unlived life is not worth examining.