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Uncommon Purpose

It started with the Swedish television show, Expedition Robinson, was perfected in Survivor, and applied to the corporate world in The Apprentice. It is the world of magnified and amplified competition, known somewhat disingenuously as “Reality TV.” While many aspects of these shows stray significantly from reality, what is real about them is their representation of the well-honed American competitive instinct.

The interesting thing about these shows is the deception of apparently shared purpose. In Survivor, sixteen wilderness castaways initially work together to make it in the rigors of a desert or remote jungle, each with his or her face set toward the same one prize. But that façade of commonality quickly falls away to reveal true purpose: individual gratification. Even the tightest of “alliances” eventually dissolves under the pressure of the “grand prize.” In Survivor, apparently common purpose is ultimately a set of conflicted purposes. In actuality, the show illustrates individual purpose that is ultimately at cross-purposes with common (shared) purpose.

Much of the contemporary talk about “my purpose” resonates with historic “rugged American individualism.” Indeed, this individualism has reached near perfection at the advent of the 21st Century. Even the U.S. Army bought into the notion for a while with its recruitment campaign for the “Army of One.” Frankly, the “Army of One” belies the reality of military purpose. Though the individual soldier is the key building block for effective application of military force, and individual acts of bravery often mark a successful military campaign–armies, by definition and necessity are never “of one”–they are “of many” who have married themselves to common, higher purpose–purpose that often demands the ultimate sacrifice of self-interest in the service of the larger cause.

There is, of course, a place for healthy expression of individual purpose. Indeed, a requisite for a fulfilled life is the focus and direction inherent to a well-rounded sense of personal purpose. Lack of focus is simply wasted time and, if we believe that each day is a gift from God, lack of purposeful living is just old-fashioned bad stewardship. So, each person ought to find what it is that makes his or her heart go “pitter patter” and pursue it with gusto.

However, as healthy as the purposeful life is, it can be deficient. Much of individual purpose can lead to a Maslowian self-actualization that is (most benignly) merely ignorant of others, or (more often) achieved at the expense of others and their purposes in a grand elimination contest where the fit survive and the others watch.   Survivor has only one million-dollar winner. And, at its worse, this individualistic purpose results in the canine cannibalism of the “dog eat dog” world; a world where “looking out for number one” has become so culturally ingrained that it provides the stage lighting for contemporary life.

But, even given the imperative of a focused life–a life grounded in a sense of forward movement and ultimate end–personal purpose cannot find ultimate expression in the kind of rugged individualism captured by Survivor and its ilk. We can get caught up in “my purpose” and miss out on the fullness of immersion in “our purpose.” I believe that personal purpose must be wrapped into higher, broader, common (in the sense of “shared”) purpose for humanity. I believe we need to reclaim a wider view of purpose–a view that is more broadly stated, understood, encouraged, and pursued. For durable success, my individual purpose must eventually mesh with others’ purposes in common endeavors, working toward common purpose.

This way to view purpose is, I believe, the Bible way, the Christian way. That way leans not so heavily in the direction of individual purpose, asking the question, “Am I fulfilled?” but leans in the direction of more complementary purpose, asking the question, “Are we fulfilling?” The former has as its end that definitive personal fulfillment ala Maslow–irrespective of the condition of humanity around us. The latter has as its end the fulfillment that comes with partnership for wider purpose. This may require temporary, sometimes even permanent sublimation of individual fulfillment for the greater cause.

Thus, healthy personal purpose ought to be secondary. It ought to fall behind a more grand sense of purpose–shared purpose–higher purpose, in Christian parlance, God’s purpose. My purpose should not have to conflict with your purpose, they should be able to operate in tandem (at least), or in complementary fashion (at best). I would contend that the most satisfying individual fulfillment comes in the context of complementary, not competitive, purpose. People can complement each other in the world to create an animated human mosaic, colored with individual outlook, but linked together to form a picture of God’s purpose for humanity. This then enables us to complement God’s own purpose as we partner with Him to advance His agenda for humanity.

For Christians, God’s purposes unfold in the Bible and biblical purpose is complementary. How can we know that biblical purpose is complementary? I think there are several ways, I will mention just a few.

First, much of the biblical language is corporate language–addressed to groups of people. Many of the “yous” sprinkled throughout the Bible are plural and speak to “the crowd” not the individual. When God worked in the life of Abraham, it was to establish a nation. When God speaks through the authors of the New Testament epistles, he most often speaks in the language of plurality. To be sure, there are many personal promises and examples of God working in and through individuals, but even a cursory scan of the Bible reveals a propensity toward community and larger purpose. God-followers, particularly Western ones, often read the Bible in terms of its individuality, missing that its flavor is plural, not singular.

Second, in addition to the corporate nature of much biblical language, the Bible has a thoroughgoing emphasis on wider circles of connection–a focus on other people, particularly the weak and defenseless. This emphasis speaks not just to the need for care of the downtrodden, but also to their inclusion in the corporate expression of the community of faith. In the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament, widows and orphans are held up as types of the most helpless in society. The followers of God, leaders in particular, are repeatedly admonished to make the wellbeing of these defenseless ones a prime concern of the gathered faithful–in a movement toward what the Pilgrims called a “commonwealth.”

Deuteronomy 10:17,18 says, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.” The biblical Book of Isaiah opens with Isaiah’s vision “concerning Judah and Jerusalem” and includes this definition of learning “to do right: “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Clearly this is not individual purpose Survivor-style. It is full-orbed community purpose at work.

In the New Testament, the phrase “one another” dots the literary landscape. This phenomenon begins with Jesus’ admonition to “love one another” so that the validity of His message and the Christian faith will be self-evident (John 13:35). The “one anothers” continue throughout the New Testament in a way that makes it impossible to miss the wider purpose of the Christian community–a purpose that transcends individual ends and makes possible the common cause. “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). “Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). “Encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5). This is a microcosm of the list. You cannot hear the “one anothers” and remain focused on purely personal purpose.

Finally, within the Bible, there are strong threads of a willingness to defer personal advancement and position in the service of a larger cause, God’s cause. Those threads are woven together in the work of Jesus Christ who models service to others in the face of the greatest personal cost possible. I remember being introduced to Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs in an undergraduate psychology class. A fellow student asked the professor if she thought Jesus Christ was an example of a self-actualized person. She said, “Yes, of course.” That exchange stuck with me through the years. It was only after I studied the life of Christ that I realized that Jesus was the only truly “other” actualized person to ever walk the planet.

Jesus is the one who said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He is the one who said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). You cannot simultaneously lay down your life for your friends and be in pursuit of purely personal purpose.

This possibility of shared purpose is not confined to those who share a Christian worldview. Anyone can recognize the power of shared purpose packed into the Golden Rule: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). That is a prescription for disaster in Survivor where all depends on individual actualization at the expense of others. It is, however, a prescription for success in pursuit of common purpose. In fact, I would contend that the Golden Rule is an excellent launching point for realization of shared purpose. All of the major world religions have their own expression of Golden Rule sentiment. Every person on the globe could engage every other person at the “do to others” level and begin to know the depth of fulfillment wrapped into shared purpose. Sadly, in my view, there is little emphasis on common purpose–little motivation for people to look beyond their own fulfillment and see the beauty of shared endeavor.

I have a picture on the wall of my study. It’s one of those souvenir pictures that capture “touristas” in the middle of a white-water rafting expedition. The picture is of my boat and the people with me on the Arkansas River in Colorado when several friends helped shepherd a church youth group on a rafting expedition. The only trouble with the picture is that, though it is of my boat, I am not among the thrill seekers captured by the camera that day.

My boat had eight people in it. Before our journey down the river, our guide gave us the mandatory safety briefing. During the briefing he said, “I’m certain no one will fall out of any of our boats. However, if you fall out, you need to remember several things. One of the most important things is to keep your feet pointed downstream. If your head is pointed downstream, your feet can get stuck between rocks and the force of the water will keep your head under water–you can easily drown–so keep your feet pointed downstream. But, I’m certain no one will fall out of any of our boats.” He then gave instructions about paddling in unison and making turns. Finally, he taught us how to retrieve someone who has fallen out of the boat, even though he was “certain no one will fall out of their boat.”

We were off on a wild ride after the briefing. The river was running fast and the white water splashed everywhere. We were already drenched when our boat entered a particularly rugged section of the river. The boat began to bounce. Up and down we went–dipping into deep-water pockets and cresting large waves. We hit the boat with a thud each time we came down. Our feet were carefully stuffed into the foot anchors in the boat, so the ups and downs were slightly unnerving but exhilarating. Just as the joy was sinking in, we went up with the boat again and we came down. But this time my descent did not end with the familiar slap of buttocks against rubber. Instead I felt the engulfing chill of the white water. I had, of course, fallen out of the boat. Three things began to work their way through my thoughts. The first was, “Hey, I could drown here!” The second was, “Why is the boat on top of my head?” The third was, “How in the world am I supposed to point my feet downstream with a boat on my head?”

Somehow, I tumbled from under the boat and my head bobbed above the water. My friend David, who had paid attention to the safety briefing, grabbed the straps on my life jacket, pushed me down into the water for buoyancy, and pulled me into the raft when I bounced back out of the river. I didn’t know until later (when they tried to sell us the photos from our ride) that I wasn’t in the boat when they took the picture, I was under the boat.

Life should be a little like that white-water ride. I should travel with a group of folks on an adventurous journey. I should have my own paddle, pull my own weight as best I can, and feel the struggle with the water personally. I should know the fulfillment packed into personal effort. But I should not paddle alone. I should paddle in tandem with others. We should be under the careful observation of a seasoned guide. We should have an agreed upon common direction and be aiming to get there together. We should work together to negotiate the ups and the downs. We should make our turns together. We should travel at a pace that enables everyone who climbed into the boat to reach the destination at the same time. And, when I fall overboard (we all fall in from time to time), I should be able to rest in the knowledge that someone from my group will work to pull me back in.

Personal purpose is second place purpose–even at its most noble. First place purpose is the wider, complementary purpose that actualizes when people link their lives, gifts, abilities, and passions and look outward and upward to more comprehensive ends. Unfortunately, shared purpose is all too uncommon. To be sure, there are pockets, perhaps whole communities of faith that have discovered the notion of shared purpose. Even there, however, Survivor’s shadow frequently darkens the view.

If, however, we can find the means to fit personal purpose into something more grand–if we can hear the voice of God calling us beyond ourselves–if that happens, we are no longer survivors with various levels of individual achievement; we are thrivers–together. And God smiles.

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