My Non-Secrets of a Purposeful (and Painful) Life

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Photo Credit: Sean Hudgins

I thought about calling this one, “My Secrets for a Happy Life.”  But then I thought, “Hmm, anyone who has actually read my blog might wonder if this really is a happy life.”

I value some things higher than happiness.  I consider having purpose in life more important than being happy.  I would rather impact people positively, influence people toward God’s Kingdom and lives of shalom and grace than pursue my happiness.

Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning,* wrote:

“It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy. But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'” Victor Frankl

Further, U.S. folks have a bad habit of mistaking comfort for happiness.  They aren’t the same thing.  In my opinion, comfort easily becomes an idol.  We’re willing to sacrifice quite a bit to protect our comfort.  That’s probably a post in itself, somewhere on the horizon.

If happiness is not, in itself, the end goal, but a result or by-product of other pursuits, and if I’m right that comfort does not equal happiness (two significant “ifs” that you have to answer for yourself), then here are some things that have helped me pursue a meaningful, purposeful, grace-oriented life. 

None of them are secrets, of course.  Nor are they original.  

But that doesn’t mean we follow them.  

 

1. People are most important.

This one just feels so obvious to me, but I know that’s partly due to my upbringing and partly to my personality, for neither of which can I take credit.

People are eternal.  I forget this all the time, but I really try to make it a central thought throughout my days.  Many times I’ve read the folk wisdom, shared generously on social media, that you should rid your lives of negative people, of the people who don’t understand you, don’t support you unconditionally, and, apparently, anyone who irritates you. 

That isn’t the Gospel.  The Gospel is that God loves people who are unbearably awful, vile, racist, sick, and annoying as hell.  Did I miss any of us? 

I know, we’re nice.  It’s everyone else who is bad.  Except again, that isn’t the Gospel.  I just read this quote and I absolutely love it:  

Christianity isn’t for The Little Engine that Can, It’s for The Train-Wreck that Can’t.  

Romans tells us that God loves us while we were still God’s enemies.  God’s enemies.  

If God is love and we were God’s enemies…  

If God is truth and we were God’s enemies…  

If God is grace and we were God’s enemies…

I’m guessing you get it.  

My point:  everyone sucks.  Grace means that God loves people who suck and grace means that we are the awful people God loves and, through that love, God makes us lovely.  Therefore, making choices of whom we find acceptable A)doesn’t line up with how God loves people, and B)puts our own (here it comes) comfort above choosing to love people.

Having said this, yes, there are toxic people who will kill you if you let them, emotionally if not physically. I’m not saying let abusers keep abusing you.  But I am saying that if the Jesus followers in my life had decided to shun me because I was annoying or draining–and make no mistake, I was!*–I might be horribly lost, or mentally ill, or dead now.  Nope, not being dramatic here.  I’m telling you what God’s grace has done in my life, shown to me by people who valued me, exactly as I was, because they believe(d) God values me.  

Who was the neighbor to this man?  I’m trying to go and do likewise.  Every day.  

2. Creativity is a radical act of hope.  

I’m curious if you saw this coming for #2.  I have a genius friend whose artwork tends to be pretty dark.  Okay, extremely dark.  It’s less extreme now, but there was a period when, to look at the paintings themselves, you could easily extrapolate that this person wanted to die.  Easily.  

We talked one day about these works of art.  My artist friend had received much criticism from some close friends and family members.  The attitude seemed to be “making such depressing art is depressing you.”

I saw it completely opposite to that.  Creating that art was looking that darkness dead in the eye and saying, “I see you.  I feel you.  You want to swallow me.  You can’t.  I name you.  Names have power and I name you, Death.  You can’t have me.”  

Now my genius friend is happily married–stupid happily married, it appears–prolific in creative endeavors and increasingly successful professionally.  

If you’re trying to write or draw, paint or sing, act or dance, take photos, make pottery, or express yourself creatively in any way, defined as broadly as you need, you are shaking your fist at the forces shrieking that life has no meaning.  You are made in the image of God-Who-Is-Artist, really what we mean when we say “Creator,” and you are reflecting that image to the world.  Creativity of any kind is a radical act of hope that what we do matters, has meaning, and adds beauty to the world.  As my eldest’s favorite poet states, 

we have to create.

 it is the only thing louder than destruction

Andrea Gibson

I wish more people read my blog, in the way that all artists of any stripe wish they were more…something.  But the main point, the real thing that matters, is that I keep writing.  Otherwise, I bury or squander the gift God gave me.  

And you?  

3. LAUGH.  AND BE WRONG.  

I dare you to be wrong today.  I triple-dog dare you.  

Let me put it another way:  You are wrong.  In some way.  I dare you to admit it.  

In how many arguments have you known you’re wrong, or had a pretty strong idea you were, but fought on, anyway?  

Blessed are the peacemakers.  Jesus said that.  He said nothing about the warmongers, the fight-pickers, or the belligerent argument-starters.  

How do we make peace?  By having bigger, deadlier weapons than the opposition?  Well, some people believe that works in international relations.  But does anyone believe that brings peace in interpersonal relationships?  

Actually, laying down our weapons brings peace.  Apologizing makes peace.  Admitting we are wrong, asking forgiveness, laughing at our own faults and mistakes instead of defending them, these make for peace.  

Blessed are the peacemakers.  You don’t have to be blessed.  You can hold the grudge, win the fight, play for keeps, mock and begrudge and insist on your rightness.  But you’ll never bring peace this way.  

The peacemakers know blessing, I suspect, because they are finding peace.  By choosing to pursue peace, the blessing is happening within them.  Blessed are the peacemakers. Not “will be.”  Are.  

I’m sure there are untold circumstances that make this advice impossible to take.  If you admitted you were wrong the other person would simply seize this as ammunition and fire it at you.  

That could be true.  But laughter is disarming.  And if you’ve said you’re wrong and laughed about it, what harm is it to you if the other person says you’re wrong?  Peacemaking might change us in ways we never imagined.  It might change the other person, too.

I haven’t always taken my own advice.  I don’t pretend that I have.  But I’m still married because I can apologize and laugh at myself.  I’m sure of that.  

4. The Princess Bride was right.  

“Life is pain, Highness.  Anyone who says differently is selling something.”  

Love requires suffering.  That’s the Gospel, too.  They’re selling comfort, security, and things that won’t hurt.  

A song I’ve been listening to on repeat, by the Lumineers, says, 

It’s better to feel pain than nothing at all/

The opposite of love’s indifference

That’s all.  

 

*And am.  

3 thoughts on “My Non-Secrets of a Purposeful (and Painful) Life

  1. Funny you write about this today—the pursuit of meaning vs. the pursuit of happiness was a central topic in two serious discussions with other friends of mine this afternoon. Cool to read some of your thoughts on the subject in tandem.

    Also, Man’s Search for Meaning. What a great book.

  2. Gotta love that timing. Any insights to share from your conversations?

    Man’s Search for Meaning should probably be required reading, though I’m not sure at what age I would require it. Of course, I’d require The Princess Bride, too, and probably at least 2-3 of Andrea Gibson’s poems. Have you read–or heard–her before?

  3. Once again, thanks for giving me a lot of content to work through. . . . Wow. Thanks for the reminder of those people who have loved us when we weren’t at a lovely spot. The challenge to be the vessels of love. . .

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