Spending a great deal of time each week listening to people: their fears, hopes, failures and aspirations, is a continual education. It teaches me much about the importance of genuine relationships and the meaning derived from those relationships. For some, just having someone to actively listen can provide an assurance about the strength of their foundation and the direction they are heading. For others, there is a realization, in taking time to listen to their own words, that they live with a deep seated instability which, if ignored, can have long lasting effects.
Some people look for affirmation. Some people look to achieve. Some people desire status (whether that’s financial or simply the number of “likes” we generate on our social media profiles). Some people just look to be connected to people who do or are the things they aspire to and find their worth in those circles. The reality is that all those pursuits will be found to lack sustaining meaning and purposeful fulfillment. They may keep us busy and they may bring a rise in our emotional pleasure – but they will ultimately lack meaning, causing us to live with hidden regret and veiled contentment.
In The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, David Brooks relates the many paths through which a person can journey through life in the hopes of fulfillment. Through the life of Harold and Erica we see how two very different people, from diverse backgrounds, pursue goals and search for meaning in ways that ultimately leave them unfulfilled (at least that’s my impression). The book elicits more questions, and certainly invites reflection within its capacity to provide many points of connections with our pursuit for meaning.
When it comes to speaking about character, Brooks, seems to leave the opening for solutions that aren’t easy to find in normal social constructs:
- “We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say.” (Loc. 131-132)
- “The reality is that intelligence is a piece of mental ability, but it is not the most important piece. People who score well on IQ tests are good at logical, linear, and computational tasks. But to excel in the real world, intelligence has to be nestled in certain character traits and dispositions.” (Loc. 2809-2811)
- “Everything came down to character, and that meant everything came down to the quality of relationships, because relationships are the seedbeds of character.” (Loc. 5294-5298)
When it comes to our capacity to “know”, Brooks also reveals the insufficiency in it’s pursuit:
- “Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. Epistemological modesty is the knowledge of how little we know and can know. Epistemological modesty is an attitude toward life. This attitude is built on the awareness that we don’t know ourselves. Most of what we think and believe is unavailable to conscious review. We are our own deepest mystery.” (Loc. 4089-4092)
- “Very often social impulses conflict with one another….Our virtues do not fit neatly together into a complementary or logical system. We have many ways of seeing and thinking about a situation, and they are not ultimately compatible.” (Loc. 4760-4763)
On my desk there is a quote. It has been there for the last thirteen years, ever since my brother, sisters and I chose to put it on my father’s funeral card. It’s a quote that reminded us of the manner in which he continually challenged us:
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
It’s a quote from one of the greatest historical influences on my own life: Martin Luther King Jr.; whose enduring legacy we commemorate on January 19th. It’s a quote that reminds me that my position, status and accomplishments are very secondary to the manner in which my life is conducted or as Dr. King would say, “the content of my character”.
It’s a quote that also reminds me that the content of my character is shaped, in part by allowing the influence of Eternity to infuse my day to day life. Certainly it is an acknowledgement that we are shaped by our life circumstances. However we are not defined by those circumstances or even by our social connections within those circumstances.
Ultimately character is forged and our desire for “knowing” is abated (even satisfied) by the assurance that comes from being “known” by Our Loving Heavenly Father. That’s the promise that is found in the Apostle Paul’s ancient words to a group of people who struggled to connect socially. His directive was not to first finding meaning in their association, but to first find meaning through their shared belonging to the Father, which comes as a result of their faith in Christ. Our ultimate response to the love of God will be demonstrated in our openness to allow others to discover that same liberating truth, knowing that we all share the same desire: we want to be known, fully, despite the fact that our knowledge is incomplete.
That’s why conversations, small or long are worthwhile. That’s why assemblies, congregations and communities of faith, who are purposeful at providing space for people to discover the immense privileges of being known, are crucial. Every person’s story is important as within each story lies the pieces through which the desire to be known can be heard, discerned and ultimately met by Our God.
“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
(1 Corinthians 13:12)
Our social connections no matter what shape they take, unless they allow us to be known by God, will ultimately leave us unfulfilled. Just ask Harold and Erica.
- What are some of the ways in which our communities of faith can improve their capacity to allow people be “known” by God?
- If achievement, social status and productivity aren’t ultimately fulfilling, what are the indications, for an individual of “being known” by God?