What do you consider as your most significant life achievement thus far? I’m not talking about ethereal or transcendent accomplishments such as finding the perfect spouse or raising godly children. I’m talking more specifically about professional, social, or personal exploits that are either so unique or so masterful as to be virtually unmatched. When I pondered this question for myself, I was both embarrassed and disappointed that I couldn’t come up with a good answer. What about you?
You see, I’m surrounded by individuals who have already accomplished much in their lifetimes. My dad has painstakingly authored numerous Civil Engineering textbooks currently used in university curriculums all over the world. My sister has so many pharmaceutical publications to her name that everyone has lost count. My brother topped them both by hitting the game winning shot right in front of Coach Cal at the Calipari Father/Son Basketball Camp. As much as I would love to claim that I’m the Dr. Oz of Orthodontics, or that my charitable foundation overcame the stigma associated with mental illness, or that I won 23 Olympic gold medals, the reality has set in that my life is completely devoid of anything remotely approaching any of these note-worthy endeavors (I did go a whole year once without eating red meat. Does that count?). The truth of the matter is that I’m just an “average Joe” doing the best I can–playing out my unremarkable role in my rather nondescript life. I’m not complaining or lamenting necessarily (maybe whining just a tad), but I am somewhat more aware of this obvious void and the ticking time-clock during this particularly reflective juncture in life.
Let me share with you a couple of recent encounters I’ve had with other lifetime achievers that sparked this contemplative mood. A few weeks ago, I met a remarkable man named Dewey Sanders at a wedding reception of a mutual acquaintance. Dr. Sanders is a pastor and psychologist who works closely with abused children at the Methodist Home. Back in 2004, at age 67, he walked 3355 miles coast-to-coast across the United States raising awareness for a childhood drug prevention and education program. From Virginia Beach to San Francisco, his 5 month journey not only fulfilled a personal dream, but raised tens of thousands of dollars for a charitable cause. Through that walk, one could say that Dr. Sanders transitioned from a life of substance to a life of significance.
My good friend Robert Littrell and his wife Leslie have faced some very distinct emotional challenges through the years. Yet through all their personal trials and sufferings, they’ve managed to maintain their focus on loving and caring for others in need. For the past several years, they’ve invested their time, money, and efforts into the formation of Six Treasures Ministry–a charitable organization intent on providing personal attention, consistent accountability, and a long-term commitment to local homeless men. I’ve witnessed first-hand Robert and Leslie not only furnishing food and shelter, but also working faithfully and obediently while teaching bible study, helping to establish vocational skills, and building interpersonal relationships with the “least of these brothers” of ours.
I recently attended the funeral of R.J. Bontrager–another dear friend and ministry partner. Nearly 35 years my senior, I considered R.J. an inspirational spiritual mentor. His boundless energy, unwavering convictions, and love for the Lord touched all of us who were blessed by having known him. He never bragged about his numerous accomplishments but he stood tall (often literally on a chair) as a true and patriotic “Oak of Righteousness” in the fallen world around him. We’ll all miss him dearly.
My point is this: People like Robert and Dewey and R.J. realize that they were all created and put on this earth to make a difference–to hopefully make the world just a little bit better than the way they found it. These people aren’t international celebrities promoting their worldwide platforms, they’re just local friends and neighbors within our own personal sphere of influence. You probably know of many others just like them. While striving for individual goals and ambitious dreams, their lives still remain full of outreach, altruism, and philanthropy. Modesty and humility aside, they would have no problems answering the question I posed at the very beginning of this blog.
For many of the rest of us, however, our objective in life thus far has often been somewhat misdirected. We focus primarily on achieving wealth, gaining prestige, and accumulating things of substance for ourselves and our families. While I’m certainly not opposed to enjoying life and providing for our loved ones, when the looming specter of significance starts finally casting its shadow upon us, we invariably start asking ourselves, “Is this all there is? There’s got to be something more.” For “average Joes” like me, these questions are daunting–indicative of someone longing to make that jump from substance to significance. I’m just not quite sure where to start. I welcome your suggestions.
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8 thoughts on “Substance to Significance”
You survived working as a partner to Doug Durbin for 20 years. I’d say given the fact you know and have experienced his insanity as much as anyone, that’s a remarkable feat. Anyone who has encountered him would likely agree.
Haha. That’s worth 24 Olympic gold medals.
John, you are selling yourself way too short. You are dealing with more challenges on a daily basis than most will ever experience and you still find good in life and have an amazing faith and positive attitude. Your everyday example of calm, perseverance, and tolerance makes you the unsung hero.
Tracy, I appreciate all you do for NAMI. Thanks so much for the encouragement and kind words. Also thanks for reading the blog.
John my dear friend, if you could sneak a peek behind the curtain of all the people you admire you will find flaws and doubts and frailty. Gifts abound in all of us. Don’t sell yourself short or think you have not contributed to the Kingdom. You can see eternal value in a ever Godless world. Keep up the fight.
Thanks Dan. Always appreciate the encouraging words of someone who has been through the fire.
John, I’m thinking of the main character in George Eliot’s masterpiece, “Middlemarch”, and also the statement about her that is the conclusion of the book: ““But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
I’d say two things to you: who has the right to measure your life? If you choose to do it, whose standards are you using? (I know as a Christian you would reject out-of-hand using the tool of comparison with others.)
I have to agree with Tracy, but I would put it differently: If God has in fact called you to witness to the cross of Christ through something as hidden and excruciatingly difficult as your marriage, are you able to fully accept that? What if your substance to significance never includes anything more than your NAMI involvement? Our witness to Christ begins in our home and moves out from there. If we are detained at home by tremendous need, our duty is unchanged. We move from that point out.
I’d remind you, too, that you don’t know what work the Lord has for you in the future. But each of us needs to remember that it is easy to confuse “big” or “visible” with significant, when really the only significance in anything we do is the measure of love that motivated it — love for Christ and for those He loves!
“If I give my body to be burned [presumably referring to martyrdom!] but have not love, I am nothing.”
I hope this doesn’t sound unfeeling — your question is one that I struggle with as well…..daily!
Marion. Very well said. One of the most challenging aspects of retired life is that it gives one too much time for self reflection. Your comments are not unfeeling at all. Thanks for responding.