Finding Gladness

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I suppose the unexamined life is not worth living may be right for the most part. However, is it possible to have an over-examined life?

In the last several years, I have been in conversations with people young and old about what it means to do something meaningful with their lives. For the young, it is mostly a question of how to invest their future years in a fulfilling and purposeful career – or series of careers. For many, this leads them to nonprofit work or social entrepreneurship as they have serious doubts about the value of either a corporate career or “menial” work. For the older, it is often about what to do with the balance of their lives now that they are near the sunset of their careers. For both, it is the result of having examined and re-examined their lives while questioning whether they will come up short. I worry about that.

It reminds me of the story “The Rocking-Horse Winner” in which author D.H. Lawrence describes a home where the young family is haunted by the unspoken phrase, “There must be more money! There must be more money! The children could hear it all the time though nobody said it aloud.” The balance of the story is the sad account of how the young son, by rocking madly on his toy horse, discovers a way to predict the winners of horse races. Tragically, he eventually rocks himself to death because the voices never stop. There is never enough money.

I wonder if we have substituted meaning for the money in that story. Our constant longing for and grasping after meaning has become unhealthy. I would even, in some cases, call it greed. The unspoken phrases chasing us now are, “I must find meaningful work and a purposeful life,” and “I must find something that will make my life matter in the years I have left.”

At the very pinnacle of his fame and productivity as a writer, Leo Tolstoy suddenly lapsed into a spiritual crisis. Maria Popova of Brainpickings writes, “With his greatest works behind him, he found his sense of purpose dwindling as his celebrity and public acclaim billowed, sinking into a state of deep depression and melancholia despite having a large estate, good health for his age, a wife who had born him fourteen children, and the promise of eternal literary fame.”

Tolstoy kept a journal which he later published as “A Confession.” What strikes me is Tolstoy’s conclusion about finding meaning. It is not more fame or fortune. It is not great achievement or important contributions, nor is it self-sacrifice or humility. Rather, it is what he calls discovering the “gladness” that seems to be out of the reach of his peers so anxious to find meaning:

In contrast with what I had seen in our circle, I saw that the whole life of these common people was passed in heavy labour, and that they were content with life. In contradistinction to the way in which people of our circle oppose fate and complain of it on account of deprivations and sufferings, these people accepted illness and sorrow without any perplexity or opposition, and with a quiet and firm conviction that all is good. In contradistinction to us, who the wiser we are the less we understand the meaning of life, and see some evil irony in the fact that we suffer and die, these folk live and suffer, and they approach death and suffering with tranquility and in most cases gladlyIn complete contrast to my ignorance, they knew the meaning of life and death, labored quietly, endured deprivations and sufferings, and lived and died seeing therein not vanity but good…”

That is exactly what Solomon discovers at the end of his search in Ecclesiastes. Having determined that there is no ultimate meaning to be found “under the sun” or in this finite life, he says, “Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil – this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.”

I know that seems simplistic (or worse), but it rings true. If God gives one the ability to enjoy what has been given, to see purpose in toil, and to skirt the distraction of constant brooding over what has been or is to come, then one can find what Tolstoy and others struggled so long to find through constant self-examination: gladness of heart. The seldom examined life is indeed worth living. More than that. It is a gift.

Art by Lili Fijalkowska

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  • Avatar
    Walt Gallaway
    Reply

    Thanks for helping keep our eyes and hearts focused on what is really important. Sometime life issues overwhelm and we need to refocus like this. Praying for you!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Walt. You continue to be an encouragement to me and so many others.

  • Avatar
    Toni S Hibbs
    Reply

    I love this one, Fred! I find often myself examining and Re-examining what I can do to make my life more meaningful. I’m focusing on the wrong thing! Thanks so much for this reminder of the truth of scripture and Solomon’s wise words, as well as those of Tolstoy. Prayers for your health to continue to improve. Blessings and hugs, Toni

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Toni. It’s the tender trap, isn’t it? We want to make the most out of this life and so much of the world around us encourages us in that.

  • Avatar
    Paul Penley
    Reply

    I couldn’t agree more. Our lust for significance grows so big no one life could satisfy it. Our craving for significance makes the mundane meaningless and begins to control whether we are content. If we can’t tell a story about recent events in our lives that’s big enough to satisfy the craving, then we become dissatisfied, discontent, and desperate. To savor the present moment, whatever the conditions might be, because simple joys are baked into our productivity, our relationships, and our daily eating and drinking is a truly freeing posture.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Paul. The problem with significance is always “compared to what”? It’s always an external measure and never really satisfied.

  • Avatar
    barton cromeens
    Reply

    Fred,
    I needed this post right now in my life. More than the references to Tolstoy or Solomon, which supported your argument well, it was the sentence “If God gives one the ability … to skirt the distraction of constant brooding over what has been or is to come, then one can find what Tolstoy and others struggled so long to find through constant self-examination: gladness of heart.”

    Don’t know if this is what people call kismet, but Robin Bruce mentioned you in a conversation recently and this just happened to be my introduction to you – a topic I really need to address in my own life.

    I’m not sure I’ll ever get to “seldom” but perhaps, in the near future, a “moderately examined life.”

    Thanks for that from a recent transplant to Tyler

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Barton. It’s likely you know Jeff Sandefer as well? Have you spent any time with the folks at The Tyler Loop? They could certainly use your skills!

      • Avatar
        barton cromeens
        Reply

        I certainly know Jeff. (I went through Acton’s program, and we have an Abilene connection.) I’ve watched the Tyler Loop with interest since moving here but have not connected with them.

        • Fred Smith
          Fred Smith
          Reply

          If you want an introduction let me know.

  • Avatar
    Lee Ridenour
    Reply

    love this.. we tend to overthink so much, and in our narcissism we lose sight of the simple truths of life, of joy, of simplicity, of contentment…. it absolutely is not all about us or even our “legacy” ….. as a physician when I tell a rich powerful person they have a dread perhaps fatal disease, they often are full of anger and “unfairness”, whereas the poor man is grateful for any help that we or the Lord can give him. He is the one full of contentment.. he is the wise one… he is the one at peace….

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Lee. Everyone, this is my doctor and I am so grateful for him. He is a gift to this community.

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