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Ask Not What Life Can Do For You…

July 7, 2010

One of the best things about vacation is the opportunity for almost unlimited reading time. When I was 10 years old my family spent a week at Iowa’s Backbone State Park. Mom took us to the public library in advance so we would have plenty of reading material. It was one of the most memorable vacations of my childhood.

Last month I was on vacation with my wife and two teenage children in the mountains of Montana and Yellowstone National Park. The setting was beautiful, but what I’ll remember most is reading A Million Miles In A Thousand Years by Donald Miller. In endorsing the book, Max Lucado concludes, “I already want to re-read it.” That’s how I felt when I finished it, and that’s what I did. I read it twice on my vacation. I hope to read it again, and soon.

The book is about living a better story — with story defined as “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” We are all living our stories. The question is, are we living stories worth telling? Worth hearing? A story about a character in pursuit of pleasure and material wealth is not as interesting as a story about a character in pursuit of purpose and a meaningful life. This is an oversimplification; you really should read the book. Twice. At least.

On the final page of the final chapter Don quotes Viktor Frankl, the psychologist who recounts the experience of a Nazi death camp in his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning:

We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.

That  reminded me of JFK’s 1961 inaugural challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”, which led me to fashion this mash-up:

Ask not what life can do for you; ask rather what you can do for life.

The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems to expect anything from life at all. As beings created in the image of the Creator, we should be asking what can we create to give back to Life with a capital L! What gifts and talents can we develop and use that will keep us energized and engaged for life (with a lower-case l)? I’m not talking about adding to a plate that is already overflowing. I’m talking about removing those things that drain us in favor of what gets us excited and energized. In her column, Balancing Act, (Inc. Magazine, May 2010), Meg Hirshberg suggests that the antidote to “busy-ness” is not rest but rather “wholeheartedness.” We need to invest our lives in service opportunities that fit our unique selves, service opportunities in which we can wholeheartedly nurture the community — and be nurtured in return.

Is the story you’re living worth telling? Maybe you need to grab the remote and surf the service channels for something you can do for Life…and for life.

Has that once refreshing service opportunity become stale and stagnant? Maybe it’s time to shift gears, to slow down or pick up the pace, depending on the circumstance.

Do these questions cause discomfort in your soul? Good! We’re not talking about living a happy ending. We’re talking about living a good story. A character has to move through conflict in order to find resolution (i.e. to get what she wants).  It is the character’s transformation in response to the conflict that makes the story good. (Or not.)

But what about the happy ending? you may ask. And rightly so. We all long for resolution; we’re wired to pursue happiness. But I don’t believe we’ll experience complete resolution or enduring happiness on this side of eternity. Things just don’t seem to work that way.* We’re living in a world we weren’t designed to endure, and that’s why it’s so important to know Who created us and what He did to provide a happy ending… on the other side of eternity.

* Case in point: the housing of our water filter cracked while we were out of town over the 4th of July weekend. We returned home AFTER about 500 gallons of water had ruined our kitchen floor and basement ceiling and carpet. C’est la vie.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2010 2:47 pm

    Aww, man! A flood! That beats all. Glad to hear you enjoyed Miller’s book & a fantabulous vacation.

  2. July 7, 2010 5:40 pm

    You said it before in a post that I wanted to comment on but didn’t (probably someone in my full household needed me at that moment and then I forgot!) – this aspect of not expecting “happiness” in this life.

    I agree wholeheartedly. Frankly, I get pretty frustrated at all the pithy quotes that circulate (especially on Twitter!) that if we just have “the right attitude” we can/will be happy.

    That is such a simplification of life that I find it insulting, really, to people who have encountered tragic circumstances in their lives and are really just trying, many days, to SURVIVE. (And I include myself in that category for reasons I won’t go into now.)

    I’m a Christian too (as you know) and I frankly don’t see any guarantee of happiness in the Bible, no matter how fully we follow the Master. As a matter of fact, Jesus spoke a lot of warnings to his disciples of the things that would happen to them because they followed him (take up your cross…). The abundant life he came to give does not translate to “happy life.” It speaks of fullness, completeness, which can ONLY be found truly in Jesus.

    This is not our home. There are no fairy-tale happy endings on this earth. None of us gets out of here alive, and none of us is free from the sadness of having to part with those that go before us. That’s why I don’t look to this life to give me anything but challenges to be overcome and responsibilities to be shouldered (ouch, this is a biggee that our society does NOT seem to like!). I have WORK to do here, raising my children (to be God-loving, Bible-believing, responsible human beings) being my first order of business. (If I fail at that nothing else really matters frankly.) That doesn’t mean a day at the beach can’t be a part of that work if it is building family bonds (or bringing needed refreshment) – it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a good book (and I generally have three books I am reading simultaneously at any given time).

    But I do think it means throwing out the pithy statements about happiness and taking the time to feel another person’s pain, to empathize, to sit quietly and listen while someone cries. It means, sometimes, suffering, or at the very least self-sacrifice, for the good of others. I’m looking to that brighter “city on hill” whose builder is God.


  1. To Be Or Not To Be Happy « Richard M Potter on Purpose

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