Ouch, what a blow to all the idealists (myself included). A statement like that is probably not something we’d like to hear. If our identity is so intimately intertwined with our desires to cause ripple effects in this world, that statement would cause us to prickle. How dare someone place such limitations on me? You don’t even know me. I don’t think I’m claiming to define your upper-limit, nor am I dictating what you can or cannot do. I’m just here to pose a few questions.
1. Do we recognise our limitations?
My mum once told me: Renee, even if you devote your whole life to sweeping the floor, you will only ever be one person sweeping the floor. You might as well train a hundred people to sweep the floor properly, then maybe you’ll get bigger, more significant patches of clean floor. I guess this is the Asian parent equivalent of the starfish story.
What she said made me realise what a tunnel vision I had. Humans, I think, are only able to view the world from the narrow lens of our personal experiences, cultural backgrounds and exposure. And even those are tainted by our prejudices. Yes, we may have good intentions, and yes we may end our lives making the floors of this world slightly more hygienic, but are we being real with our severe limitations? We have no control over when and where in history we were born into, our lifespan is incredibly short, we can only be at one place at once (and even then, not be in the present), and we get so easily tempted and distracted.
Although some may think recognising these very real limitations may act as an impediment to our good endeavours, I think it is crucial so we recognise our very short sojourn here on earth. It gives us perspective- we are one speck in this wide world. We may mean something to someone, but over time, everything that is not eternal shall pass.
2. Will our identity sustain us when we fail?
When we base our identities upon the kind of change we wish to make in the world, we place ourselves in a precarious position. We allow our assurance to be dependent on the outcome of our world-changing actions; and our emotions dangerously susceptible to the harsh journey of life.
When the going is good, our assurance feels solid; secure and impenetrable. The converse, however, has potential to wreck the very core of our identity, and reveal if we are building our lives upon solid gold or wispy straws. When we base our identity and centrality upon the efforts of our good endeavours, how secure are we? Only as secure as our ability to perform, which we all know is temporal.
I suppose even we become incapable of performing any more, we can look back at the past and marvel at our hey days. However, how satisfied will we be in resting in our laurels? The truth is that the past will never appease us if the present object of our focus isn’t giving us the satisfaction we desire. So, when the good days are gone, what remains of us?
3. What is the source of our sense of idealism?
We all have an innate desire to make our lives count for something. Whether it’s to be a great daughter or mother, or to advocate for the voiceless, we have an ideal vision in our head, and we laud those who go out to pursue it. Where did we get this moral compass within us? How did we come to a place where we recognise meaning, morality and mercy?
The more I dig into my faith in Christianity, the more I conclude that a great Law-Giver exists and imparts this sense of justice in His creation. How else will we squirm at the thought of mass murders? Are coincidental social contracts binding enough to ensure we condone one thing and condemn another?
I think we do have a moral grid which operates within us; a day in our lives will serve as a testament to that. Hence why we do know how to choose between what is meaningful and what isn’t. However, I think somewhere something went wrong. We still retain remnants of it, but it has been severely tainted by our own pride and selfish motives.
4. Is it worth it?
If we function in a world where our hope is built upon what can be at best long-lasting but never eternal, then our actions will literally only count as long as the sun continues to shine. I’m not saying Christianity doesn’t advocate good, meaningful action. On the contrary, Christianity teaches us to love our enemies, care for the orphans and pursue justice. But in what context? I believe it’s in the context of recognizing our own failings, and deriving our source of identity and justice in His sense of justice; His call for mercy; His sacrifice on the Cross in the form of Jesus Christ.
Hence, we pursue good endeavours with bended knees, bowed heads and humbled submission to His call, knowing that even the little that we do will not be in vain, and ultimate restoration and renewal will come from Him alone.
“Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any difference, and all good endeavours, even the best, will come to naught. Unless there is God. If the God of the Bible exists, and there is a True Reality beneath and behind this one, and this life is not the only life, then every good endeavour, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever.”- Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavour