The Desire of Distinction
English author Samuel Johnson once wrote, “There lurks, perhaps, in every human heart, a desire of distinction, which inclines every man to hope, and then to believe, that nature has given himself something peculiar to himself.”
I was startled by the clairvoyance of an editorialist who once connected these sentiments with America’s escalating fascination with book writing. His comments put flesh on the motive often hidden behind the guise of individuality. “The search for personal significance,” he explained, “was once nicely taken care of by the drama that religion supplied. This drama, which lived in every human breast, no matter what one’s social class, was that of salvation: would one achieve heaven or not? Now that it is gone from so many lives, in place of salvation we have the search for significance, a much trickier business.”(1)
Though the author does not necessarily articulate a sense of loss in regards to the replacement of one pursuit for the other, his thought process is helpful. As religion continues to be eclipsed, particularly in the West, as a provider of significance, humankind is left searching for other sources. From the increased interest in book writing, to social networking, to extreme sports and hobbies, it is a quest clearly observed. Nonetheless, the quest to find significance apart from God is hardly a modern phenomenon. The desire to make a name for oneself is as old as the hills upon which we have built our grand towers and conquered great cities. The drive to define significance on our own is as ancient as the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel. The aspiration is nothing new; book writing is just one more outlet.
But what is interesting, in terms of understanding human history and behavior, is that we should have this longing for significance in the first place. If we are merely products of a wholly indifferent materialist universe, why are we not more at home with our own insignificance? Why should we seek a transcendent sense of meaning at all? What purpose would it serve to leave behind a meaningful legacy? Unless, indeed: there is something about us that is neither temporal nor insignificant.
Within the Christian worldview, the cry of the heart for personal significance is a cry the Christian has owned and contended with. When a person answers the call of the Lord to “come and follow,” she admits she has found in the person of Christ an answer to a cry she was incapable of answering personally. When Jesus proclaimed, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” he was stating something essential for the one searching for significance. Knowing who we are and what we need is the starting point for who we are becoming. This narrative is entirely at odds with the quest for personal significance commonly among us today which reverses this order, telling us that we must first become something in order to meet our own needs and make a name for ourselves. The Christian is one who sees both the weariness and the ineffectiveness in such labors.
Having encountered Christ, new possibility opens. He is the one in whom our humanity finds its greatest significance because he is the only one who accepts who we are and offers us what we need—coming as one of us, as the human savior who shows us what it means to be truly and significantly human.
Lesser searches remain abundant. But will writing a book or climbing the corporate ladder really hush the cry within you? What if significance, like life itself, is not manmade?
(1) Joseph Epstein, “Think You Have a Book in You? Think Again,” The New York Times, September 28, 2002.
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