“It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses.” (Dag Hammarskjold)
One of the most recurring, vexing questions in my life concerns what really matters. Like many people, I long for a meaningful life, and I often wonder what would need to happen to establish that my life really has meant something significant. Often times, for me, this turns my attention to external markers of accomplishment that I could point to that would somehow prove that my life has mattered. I am tempted to believe that a meaningful life is defined in proportion to the number of lives that I directly touch.
Words of wisdom such as the ones above, however, redirect me. In general, it seems more meaningful to direct efforts to making a real difference in the lives of a few than in trying to make a small difference in the lives of many. In this way, I imagine the effects of my life as being reflected in a set of concentric circles, with my most influential actions being directed toward myself, and then toward my wife and kids, and then toward other family relationships, long-term friendships, my church community, my students, and the like.
More specifically, beginning in the center, it seems that the most significant actions in my life are directed toward my self, the main entity that I exercise control over. As Leo Tolstoy once noted, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Consequently, my own inner transformation must be a high priority. Just as I sometimes wish that others around me would change, others around me surely also wish that I would change, and this is where I have primary influence. Ignoring the potential for inner transformation also is a choice that has consequences.
Beyond this, I make a significant difference, for better or worse, in the lives of my immediate family members, including my wife, kids, and father. No one can be my wife’s husband or my kids’ dad or my dad’s youngest son besides me. Given this, I have a primary responsibility to bring my best to them. Distractions that get in the way of this need to be put into broader perspective. Related to this, I think of the words of Mother Teresa, who once remarked:
“Once in a while, we should ask oursrelves several questions in order to guide our actions. . . Do I know the poor? Do I know. . . the poor in my family, in my home, those who are closest to me?. . . Perhaps what my husband or wife lacks, what my children lack, what my parents lack, is not clothes or food. Perhaps they lack love, because I do not give it.”
More broadly, my actions may play a relatively significant role in the lives of other family members, long-term friends, members of my church community, my students, and the like. However, the further out from the “inner core” that I get, the less important I become. In other words, the less of a personal relationship I have with people, the less difference I can make.
As Hammarskjold suggested, there is a temptation to “labor diligantly for the salvation of the masses.” However, the older that I get, the more I realize that external markers of accomplishment and efforts to make a difference in the lives of large groups of people don’t really have much impact. More is less; less is more. Thus, rather than evaluating the significance of my life in terms of awards, wealth, or prestige, perhaps it would be better to look at the number of sincere Thanksgiving or birthday wishes that I get. The depth and richness of close relationships seems much more important.
To some, this line of thought may suggest limitations on the amount of influence a single person might have. This is true. It seems wise to recognize that an individual only can do so much. On the other hand, I am reminded of Jesus, who decided to invest most of his efforts into a relatively small group. Over generations, this changed the world. Similarly, if a spouse is happy, or if children are well-raised, the influence will continue as these people influence others. Furthermore, I believe that the focus on the impact of an individual may be culturally limited. The Bible speaks about Christians being part of a body. In this sense, each person has a limited, but vital, role to play. For instance, if the hand doesn’t do its job, the whole body suffers. One can also extend this reasoning to consider the body of humanity, and how each person plays an important role in their station in life and in applying their gifts and passions in ways that only they can.