The Hunger for Significance

 
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There’s a growing restlessness in our generation—a dissatisfaction with our current positions, an eagerness for new opportunities, an urgent pressure to be a part of something bigger and better. People are feeling more and more inadequate, overlooked, and insecure. A pastor who was helping host a conference for Christian leaders said to me recently that although the event was an incredible time of empowerment, he noticed something among the crowds of current and future leaders that worried him. He sensed a driving tension within them, this restlessness, and he was able to identify its source: a hunger for significance.

When he called it out, I suddenly felt exposed—he didn’t know it, but he was talking about me. I’d been feeling restless with my life for the past several months and anxiously thinking I needed to make a change, to do something more. I was being driven by a hunger for significance. A few weeks later, a documentary about Fred Rogers from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helped me understand the heart of the issue. 

In the 1970’s and 80’s, Fred Rogers became a national icon through his children’s television show, on which he always repeated his trademark sentiment, “You’re special just the way you are”—a statement that was less a cute catchphrase and more a deeply held conviction. But in his time, Fred Rogers was publicly criticized, some even saying on national television, “Mr. Rogers is ruining an entire generation.” They argued that because he was telling kids that they were special just the way they were, they would grow up to become entitled and lazy, unwilling to work and accomplish anything. Years later, Mr. Rogers addressed these accusations in a university commencement speech: “When I tell children that they are special just the way they are, what I am saying is that there is nothing they need to do to be loved.”

To be honest, Mr. Rogers’ response didn’t seem very adequate, and I couldn’t help but kind of agree with his critics. It felt wrong, but deep down, they made sense to me. But as I reflect on the issue of significance, I realize that I resonated with those critics because we operated from the same basic principle: significance comes from accomplishment. If that’s true, then if you tell kids they are already significant, they’ll have no motivation to accomplish anything. But Mr. Rogers was saying that significance doesn’t come from accomplishment, but rather from simple, relational, human-to-human love. Accomplishments have nothing to do with it. They’re separate issues: significance is fulfilled through being loved, accomplishments through compassion (but that’s a different conversation).

To clarify, a personal sense of significance is the feeling that you are important, valuable, and worthy of love. I emphasize “feeling” because from an objective theological perspective, we mostly all agree that all people are important, valuable, and worth loving. But if you don’t feel that way—if you don’t experience the reality of it—you’ll continue to hunger for significance, whether you know you’re hungry for it or not. The hunger might just take the form of a persistent, gnawing feeling of restlessness. The problem, though, isn’t the fact that we desire to experience personal significance, because it’s a fundamental human need. The question is how you meet it.

Since I’d always been told that significance comes from accomplishments, then as soon as I started feeling insignificant and restless, my brain’s response was automatic: You’re not doing enough. Find a better job. Get a more respectable position. Go on an epic mission trip. Join a new ministry. Become a leader. Do something. Do better. Do more. When we derive our significance from accomplishment, we’re prone to hijack the good works of God to feed our unmet needs, always trying prove something, earn something, or make ourselves feel better about who we are.

Of course, this means that instead of trying to do more to feel significant, we need to come to God and experience His love. But I feel like most people reading this already get that. What I think is important for today is to encourage you to find friends. REAL friends—the ones who love you as you truly are, who aren’t impressed by your front but see the greatness hidden in you, who enjoy you and appreciate you, who feel your pain when you hurt, who even laugh at your jokes that aren’t that funny—find them. Befriend them. Commit to walking together. Love them and let them love you. Be heard. Listen. They are one of God’s gracious expressions of his love in your life. They will teach you how to be loved, and let you experience what it means to feel significant before you’ve accomplished anything.

For those who might be uncomfortable with the idea of “depending” on other people, remember that God himself has his own community. It’s astounding if you consider it—God allows us to experience the loftiest realm of theology, the deep mystery, God’s communal oneness, the Trinity, through something we stumble into as children on the playground: friendship.

Andrew Min is the Next Steps Coordinator at Newsong Church in Santa Ana, CA. He studied Biblical Studies at Biola University.

 
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