I have been thinking lately about my role as a parent – the joy I have to father my four children. Among the many responsibilities I have to love, care, feed, and protect my progeny, what else can I do to help them flourish in life – to be well-balanced and have a healthy self-concept?
In thinking about such weighty things, I have been compelled to understand my role in terms of doing that which complements the faithful effort of others who are entrusted with the care of my children (family members, teachers, coaches, etc.). What I have recognized, and what I’d like to share in this blog, is that there is already a powerful narrative at work in the lives of my children – being reinforced almost daily in their hearts and minds. In simplest terms, let’s call this narrative – the World.
The World’s Narrative will have its way – it knows how to feed itself – it has a veracious appetite. You won’t stumble into this narrative by accident, or be able to avoid its trappings – it finds you right where you are and writes you into its storyline. This Worldly Narrative is best understood in terms of performance. It is precisely this narrative that I wish to complement with another way to conceptualize life. I will get to that shortly; let’s first look at performance.
Many years ago in the 17th century, Descartes was accredited for his famous dictum: “Cogito ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am.” Here’s the basic idea: the fact that I think demonstrates that I exist. I surely cannot affirm my own non-existence – right? This Cartesian rationalism that values thinking above all else was the order of the Old World Narrative. Today however, a different story has emerged and is being told, told-again, and re-told daily throughout our North American culture.
In contrast to the old dictum, the World’s Narrative today is tantamount to: “I perform, therefore I am.” Indeed, it is performance that drives the message of the World and how we think of ourselves in relation to it. To be someone, you must demonstrate something of value in yourself to others – thinking by itself is no longer enough. Let’s consider just a few examples of how this narrative plays out in the minds of our children almost daily, even from an early age.
- How many shapes can you identify? How many letters do you know?
- How fast can you read?
- How many math problems can you work in 1 minute?
- How many Accelerated Reader points have you earned?
- How many scales can you play on your instrument?
- How many points have you scored for your team?
- How many games have you won?
- How tall are you?
- How fast can you run…and how far?
- How much weight can you lift?
- How many sports do you play well?
- How many friends do you have? How many girlfriends/boyfriends?
- How high did you score on your college entrance exam?
- How many scholarships did you receive and how much money was promised?
“You really want to be somebody?” asks the World.
“Show me how if you can. Better than you have tried. Prove it or else.”
The counter message is even more deadly: “Well, if you can’t prove your worth, then perhaps there is no worth in you to prove.”
Of course, as adults, we do not grow out of the World’s Narrative storyline– it is ever present with us too, simultaneously building us up with our “accomplishments” and breaking us down with our “failures.”
- How much money do you make and how much have you saved?
- How many degrees did you earn?
- How many homes and “doodads” do you own?
- How many charities or civic clubs do you serve?
- How often do you work out and how much weight have you lost?
- How many vacations did you take?
- How well have you raised your children?
- How well are you respected in your field?
- How well have you planned your retirement?
Surely we all feel the very real pressure to demonstrate or defend our worth every day. But let us be clear at this point: The World’s Narrative can and does often work against us in antagonizing ways, but it is not inherently or even necessarily evil. We would do well to remember that this is the narrative of hard work, effort, earning, productivity, contribution, risk and reward. The World’s Narrative is quite simply the way the world works today – and perhaps the way it always has worked to a degree. It is survival of the fittest. That means that fitness still counts and it is a good thing. The World’s Narrative provides us with clear plans and tangible results – ways to pursue our desires and fulfill our dreams.
Yes, the world often gives us an honest assessment of ourselves. Yet, problems arise when we fail to recognize that the World’s Narrative is an incomplete picture. That is, the World’s Narrative explains so much – but it doesn’t – it can’t – explain it all.
What has impressed upon me recently is that there is another narrative sown into the very fabric of life – one that is so important, but one that can so easily be missed in our consciousness by the sheer weight and relentless force of the World if we let it. Let us call this other view the Narrative of the Beloved. Stay with me.
The Narrative of the Beloved
Have you missed the Narrative of the Beloved? I have learned that it has a still small voice – it is humble and unassuming – neither loud nor audacious. Now, please don’t mistake this quieter narrative for weakness…for its power and beauty are without end.
The Narrative of the Beloved is indeed a story of a different kind – it comes from another place than the world – it sees and explains things differently…perhaps better, deeper, even clearer. The Narrative of the Beloved says that your true worth is not located in your performance. This is the story of God Himself: God said you are beloved.
God said you are beloved.
Read this again slowly – sip on it like a fine wine, or your favorite cup of coffee. There is no reason to hurry in this story. There are no points for speed. Just sip, breathe, and sip some more.
You. Are. Beloved.
Some of you may be thinking: Could this narrative be true? Is the truth of our lives much more than the sum total of our accomplishments – our metrics – our demonstrable efforts – our legacies? How could this be?
Here is how: God gets the final word and He has said you are beloved. Allow the Narrative of the Beloved to be welcome news – a soothing balm to hurting or broken souls. The Good News of this narrative is so big that it, indeed He, can be well-received by all. We are beloved.
Before our first words, first steps, first report card, first job, first relationship – we are loved. Despite our biggest failures in life, we are loved. Even our endless searches for whatever is next that we surmise must be accomplished so that we may affirm that we are something after all is unnecessary in light of the Narrative of the Beloved.
We do not need to prove anything to attain actual significance or acceptance – to be known and valued. God has chosen us as human beings to carry forth His image into all the world – we have been given infinite worth and value. God loves us; we are His beloved.
My African friends have taught me in recent years that the systems that produced the modern world – that of rationalism (thinking) and individualism (personal performance) – often miss a greater truth. In short, instead of “I think, therefore I am” or “I perform, therefore I am,” we are invited by our Creator to consider another way – a way that suggests “cognatus ergo sum” – “I am known (or I belong or I am related), therefore I am.”
Call this a divine Ubuntu principle if you will: a person is a person through other persons. That is, we find who we are through God and through others. We don’t have to go through this life with the constant pressure of performance (or failure) framing our estimated value. We are simply and wonderfully the beloved. U2 front-man, Bono, put it this way in his song One:
But we are not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other
Think about what a glorious statement it is to be one among the beloved. If you will excuse the phrase, we come loved and cared for right out of the box. Bathe as long as you need in this warm and cleansing truth today, and pass it along to your children, your spouse, your friends, your family, your coworkers, your neighbors.
The Narrative of the World plays the often harsh role of critic, judge, and jury – it evaluates and renders a decision; the Narrative of the Beloved is the Divine Embrace – it longs for your presence in and through all seasons of life. The Narrative of the World often affirms in us that which we fear most about ourselves – that we are average, lacking, and do not measure up as we should. The Narrative of the Beloved says that you are extraordinarily made just as you are (Ps. 139:14).
May we not allow the Narrative of the World to have the only voice among the people we journey together with each day. As we “carry each other,” the Narrative of the Beloved is to be heralded with words – with songs – with hugs – with whatever means we find.
1 John 4:7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.
Psalm 100:3 Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his.
***God blessed the world through the work of Henri Nouwen – including his classic Life of the beloved: Spiritual living in a secular world (1992) – out of which this blog post was inspired.