As a “newbie” to smart technology, I continue to be amazed at the immense capabilities I have at my disposal with something as small as my smartphone. Not a week goes by that I don’t discover some new application that delivers on its promise to make my life go so much smoother and so much easier.
There are certain stories that I always seem to fall for. Regardless of how busy I may be, when I’m reading a magazine or surfing the Internet, there are just some stories I can’t pass up. Probably the ones that rank at the top of my lists are the “Best Places” stories. You know the ones I’m talking about – “Best places to live…work…study…retire.” Evidently, I’m not by myself, given how many of them get written.
Some time ago, back when TV was beginning to establish its place or prominence in American households, network executives came up with a format that came to be known as the “game show,” in which contestants would compete with one another for prizes and grand excursions and significant sums of money. It would arguably become a format that would turn out to be the staple of television broadcasting even to the present day.
Dr. Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the United States Senate, once made a speech in which he contended that many people today suffer from a malady he called “Destination Sickness.” Of course, you won’t find anything of the sort in any medical textbook. “Destination Sickness” is a disease of the soul – one that people contract when they focus all of their time and energy in the wrong direction; for example, in the pursuit of position and possessions as the most important concerns of everyday existence. Halverson describes such a person in this way: “He’s the man who’s become a whale of success downtown and a pathetic failure at home. He’s a big shot with the boys at the office and a big phony with the boys at home. He’s the status symbol to society and a fake in the family.” He concludes that “Destination Sickness is an illness peculiar to a culture that is affluent, but godless” (“A Day at a Time”).
What do you think of when you hear the word “average?” I think of a conversation I had years ago with a seminary friend and classmate. It was a stressful semester for me at that time. I was taking a heavy load and trying to balance my studies with my responsibilities at the small church I was serving. Like most of my friends, I was struggling, as were they, with the high expectations each of us had placed upon ourselves, but this one friend seemed to be remarkably at ease. Nothing seemed to bother him one bit, at least not anything related to our studies. When I asked him how he balanced everything that was going on in his life, his answer took me aback. He told me, “While the rest of you are grinding to get an ‘A’ in everything, I’m content with making a ‘C.’ I don’t expect to be anything other than an average student, and I’m OK with that.” Would you be OK with that? Would you be OK with being “average?”
Most of us struggle with picturing what our life will look like in the days ahead, do we not? That’s the conclusion of a Harvard psychologist, Daniel Gilbert, and two of his colleagues, who recently did a study that involved more than 19,000 people on this very common trait among us humans. Their research revealed that in fact people of all ages grossly underestimate the extent to which they will change in the future. They instead end up believing that who they are today is pretty much who they will be tomorrow, despite the fact that who they are today isn’t who they were yesterday (Science, January 2013). In other words, even though we know we have changed a lot over the years that have passed, we struggle to wrap our minds around how much change is to be expected when it comes to our future.
There is a quaint expression that I grew up with in rural Alabama. It was something I remember hearing people say when someone else did something nice for them. Instead of saying, “Thank you,” I remember hearing them say, “Much obliged.” When you think about it, that expression is more than a polite expression; it is also a deeply spiritual one. It means that I understand my obligation to the person that’s done something nice for me. I don’t take the act for granted. I don’t presume upon that person’s grace. I am “much obliged.”
In order for a person to live with any measure of purpose and significance, he has to be guided by a defined set of values that order and direct everything he says or does. These guiding values constitute core principles, bedrock beliefs that become something of a “North Star” – a fixed point of reference – that gives constancy to a person’s life even when everything all around him seems to be in a constant state of flux.
Just for fun this morning, let’s spend a moment thinking of all those things we do in life that we’d prefer not to be doing, but we do them anyway, simply because they’re in our best interest to do so. For example, many of you got up this morning and, even though it’s a Sunday, you spent 20 to 30 minutes in some form of vibrant exercise because you know that doing so is in your best interest. Others of you went to the medicine cabinet at dawn’s early light and started pulling out the pills and popping them into your mouth because you knew if you didn’t, it would come back to haunt you. Still others of you came to church this morning strapped into your car with that most uncomfortable thing ever invented, the seat belt or, better yet, you strapped your little ones in to a car seat that requires an engineering degree to master, because, well, you never know when someone might run a stop sign. I think you get the picture. Every single day we go through all manner of less than desirable activities simply because we’re better off doing them in the long run.
Daniel Hernandez was a recent college grad when he moved to New York. By his own admission he was not ready for a city that was so large and so impersonal. He had landed a job for a company that distributed press releases that were disguised as news – a form of work he described as “soul-numbing.” The only good part of the job was that it allowed their employees one day a week of paid leave to do some form of charity work, so Daniel volunteered for a suicide prevention hotline service, where he saw first-hand the number of lonely people in a place like New York who had reached the end of their rope, feeling as if they had no place to turn and, more importantly, no one to whom they could turn. What Daniel realized in the process that the real reason he had volunteered for this charity work was that he was experiencing pangs of loneliness himself, pangs that perhaps might be eased by speaking with strangers on a hotline. What Daniel discovered from his time with the hotline is that virtually every person struggles with some kind of burden and that we all need someone in life from whom we can seek help for that burden, even if the only help they can give is a simple acknowledgement that “life must be hard” (“Call If You’re Feeling Lonely,” The New York Times, 2/12/14).