Fearing Irrelevance

Recently, as I was feverishly composing the conclusion of an essay “On the Conflict of Science and Faith,” I was struck by a realization.  I finally addressed a fear that I have unwittingly harbored for many years.  Perhaps it is with age and the growing acknowledgement of the inevitability of mortality that I allowed the thought to ever crystallize.  The fear that appeared on the page before me may be the fear that I “…fear the most, that fear being the twin fates of irrelevance and the inevitable oblivion of non-existence.”

As a teacher, I harbor no delusional hopes that I may attain greatness in any sense of great awards or accolades for remarkable achievement.  I gave up on that a long time ago.  Such shows of appreciation are nice to have, but if they change the way I view myself and the roles that I fill from day to day, they are ultimately counter-productive.  If I become too wrapped up in my own good press, I may buy into the notion that I can do no wrong.  And from long experience, I know that to be quite and decisively false.

Perhaps my greatest aspiration as a teacher is simply to make a difference.  I came to realize early on that I would never be a Nobel laureate, and that notion did not really bother me.  I lack the focus and drive to pursue that level of inquiry, and I am quite certain that dumb luck has played little role in the greatest discoveries as recognized by the Nobel committee–not that I have ever been the recipient of much attention from that most fickle of muses in the first place.  No, I realized my place must be in some role that would be more supportive.  And every play needs a competent supporting cast to achieve whatever measure of greatness it may.

Making a difference cannot be measured easily.  I can look at the grades and continuing successes of my students and take some pride in them, basking in the reflected glow of their accomplishments, and that is somewhat satisfying.  To be able to spark the curiosity of a young mind, to kindle some burgeoning imagination—these are sometimes difficult tasks, but if they can be accomplished, then I will have touched the future.  I will have attained at least some small measure of relevance.

The concept of relevance is not something to be taken lightly.  It has been the subject of many literary projects, and not a few popular stories and movies.  I think one of the greatest example of this idea is found in my favorite movie of all time, the 1946 Frank Capra film, It’s A Wonderful Life, based on the 1939 short story, “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern.  In the film, George Bailey (who could only have been portrayed by the original everyman actor, Jimmy Stewart), has been the good son, the good brother, the good husband, the good father…in a word, good.  He put off his plans for a college education to take over the family business after a stroke took his long-suffering father, sending his brother to college in his place.  He stayed with the business, keeping it afloat defending it from the assaults of Lionel Barrymore’s cruel Mr. Potter, all the while realizing that life was passing him by.  The crisis point of George’s story is reached on a Christmas Eve, when his Bailey Bros. Building and Loan partner, his addle-brained Uncle Billy, misplaces an $8,000 bank deposit, sending George into what would become a suicidal panic, contemplating ending his life so that his insurance might help meet the discrepancy in the books.  In order to save George’s life, Clarence Oddbody, George’s endearingly inexperienced guardian angel portrayed by Henry Travers, leaped into the icy river, knowing that George would do all in his power to save the drowning man.  He then proceeds to show George what life would have been like had he never been born.  After seeing the dismal existence of so many good people whom he had known and helped along the way in his original timeline, Clarence tells George, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

That each life touches so many others is an important thought, and one worthy of more consideration.  You never know how you may have touched a life.  Maybe it was a word of encouragement.  Maybe you made some sad person feel a little less sad for a moment.  Maybe you did one of those elusive random acts of kindness that people used to talk about.  (Personally, I don’t think kindness should be “random”: it should be the expected.  But there is the issue of free will, I suppose.)

Then he says, “You see George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?”  Sometimes it is very hard to think of life as being wonderful.  I think of the last couple of years my mother shared with us on earth, and I ached for her.  I would have taken some of her hurt if I could.  But she had a wonderful life.  She didn’t throw it away.  She held on, and she brought out the best in everyone, from friends she had known for a lifetime, to now grown children she had cared for throughout her years working in daycare, to doctors, nurses, aides, and therapists who tried to help her overcome her mounting infirmities.  Indeed, as I sat with her in her final days, I asked God to be kind to her, since she truly was the best of all of us, at least of our family–and I don’t think I would get any argument from my siblings.

Clarence’s final thought to George was in the inscription in the book he left for him: “Remember George: No man is a failure who has friends.”  Friendship is relevance, at least in the lives of those who are counted as friends.  But this relevance also has a ripple effect.  The good influence that one may impress on a friend may be transferred, resonated to other strands in each of their own tapestries of life.  While Shakespeare may have noted that the evil that men do lives on, casting a pall of darkness over the memory of one departed, one act of kindness, well-placed, appreciated, remembered, may be enough to flood that memory with enough light to dispel the defaming demons.  But that act should not be the exception in a life of one who dreams of making a difference, or one who seeks that crown of relevance.  Clarence’s final message, while absolutely true, has a corollary: No man is a failure who is a friend.

Now, one might not think that there would be much said about this subject from biblical sources.  In fact, many might focus on the need for humility, and wanting to be relevant almost sounds self-serving.  It is far from the case.  To make a difference is not to seek any public acclaim, which would indeed be a violation of Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is trying to improve someone else’s life for no other reason than it is the right thing to do for the one who receives.

If we were to trace back the instructions on justice, mercy, love for neighbor, they would be seen to fill a significant fraction of the pages of the Judeo-Christian scriptures.  Too often, we focus on the passages on wrath, the promise of judgment on the evil-doer, and the promise of heaven for the faithful.  While those passages are certainly there, there are many that in my nearly half a century of attendance in Bible classes and sitting through thousands of sermons I had never heard, until my eyes were opened to what God wants most.  Consider these few passages, only a sampling of many that can easily be found, from the Old Testament.  Israel, and their estranged brothers in Judah, had forsaken the ways of God, and over and over, the call went out for them to get back to basics, to make a difference in the lives of others.

Isa 1:17 Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow.

Hos 6:6 For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.

Hos 12:6 So you, by the help of your God, return; Observe mercy and justice, And wait on your God continually.

Amo 5:15 Hate evil, love good; Establish justice in the gate. It may be that the LORD God of hosts Will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

Mic 6:8 He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?

Zec 7:9 “Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Execute true justice, Show mercy and compassion Everyone to his brother.

Zec 8:16 These are the things you shall do: Speak each man the truth to his neighbor; Give judgment in your gates for truth, justice, and peace… (NKJV)

Certainly, all of these are directed at specific groups of people in specific circumstances.  But the resonance of these themes from the Law, through the Wisdom literature, repeated in the Prophets, and into the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament is overwhelming.  The premise is simple: If God is good, righteous, merciful, and just–and he is– then we must be good, righteous, merciful and just.  But more often than not, we struggle at it, having real difficulty getting past the selfishness that we all possess, though in varying degrees of volume leading to varying degrees of “spoilage.”

There are times when each of us worries that we really just don’t matter to anyone else.  We may think about how we are unappreciated in our jobs, how because of that we may lack amenities.  It is obvious that in difficult economic times that we should be happy to have jobs, and so we should also be content with the necessities.  Jesus addressed this very concern, getting to the heart of this manifestation of feelings of irrelevance, pointing out that the ultimate arbiter takes care of every detail, from the lilies of the field that are clothed in magnificence if only for a day, to the sparrows whose lives are known and noticed by God, and thus ours.

Matthew 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (ESV)

So, when we get to feeling like no one cares, when we worry about making ends meet and all of the things we don’t have, we should remember that if we are truly seeking the life of righteousness as proposed and endorsed by God, we will lack for nothing.  Jesus makes this clear to his Apostles in Matthew 19:29, when Peter asked him what they would have, since they had left all to follow their Teacher.  “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life (ESV),” said Jesus.

That is quite a promise.  But it is not really talking about material wealth.  It’s talking about relationships.  A disciple’s life is not for everyone, and those who would enter it may suffer loss in terms of relationships.  Some people may actually disown members of their own families for trying to do what they believe is right.  Jesus says it might appear to isolate you and even make you lonely, but look at what you will have gained: the people whom you can count on will be multiplied, as all of his followers, through adoption into his family, would be brothers and sisters.  There would be no more want, in terms of daily needs.  All would be provided.  And the family of believers would be dearer than any earthly family that would hold you back.

That God knows and cares is a resounding affirmation of the relevance of each life.  Each person matters, whether we think we do or not.  But knowing this, the responsibility of each one who would embrace that relevance is to show it.  Because we have received that affirmation of relevance, we must show others that and why they matter.  And so we come full circle, back to making a difference.

The fear of the oblivion of non-existence is but another manifestation of the fear of irrelevance.  If after my time on earth is ended, I have left nothing, no legacy of good works, my life will have lacked meaning.  Understanding the special relationship we have in God’s mind should make us want to sweep that creeping fear from the porch.  And if we ever find ourselves starting to worry, Peter reminds us in I Peter 5:6-7, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (ESV)  The promise of exaltation and the assurance that God’s broad shoulders can carry all of our anxieties should be ample evidence that each person’s life truly matters.  But those promises require humility.  Personally, I think that’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.

So the nebulous property of relevance, making a difference, and living a life that matters are all things that give life meaning.  It is to understand that because we live, we have value if to none other but God.  With that realization, then, we can begin to demonstrate to others how much they mean, how important they are, tipping over the first domino in what we might hope to be a universal chain reaction of goodness.  And each day, we start over, picking up as if we had never begun, each day a new opportunity to lift a burden, dry a tear, bear a sorrow, or dispel a fear.  And each day, the world can become better, because we come to realize that we matter, and that is only amplified by helping others come to that realization through helping others.  I am more than my brother’s keeper.  I am his servant, his teacher, his student, his friend.  When we rise to that level of confidence and to that understanding of our integral roles in life, questions of relevance are of no consequence.  We fulfill the two greatest commandments, to love God as demonstrated by loving our neighbors.  Then we can each say without reservation, “I matter.  God said so.”

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