The Five Life Stages Wrestling with Insignificance
There are five life stages we can go through. The more I come to understand these milestones, the more centered I become as a leader. I believe we are at our best when we progress through these stages in a healthy way.
I hope this article will encourage you to think about where your journey has taken you so far, and where you should progress to next.
We are born totally dependent on others. We are at the mercy of others for our food, shelter, and sustenance. As we grow older, our physical and emotional dependence gradually decreases as we mature into healthy adults. Some don’t grow out of this stage completely. They continue to be dependent on others in different ways throughout their lives. This creates dysfunction in their relationships and in their effectiveness as leaders because they continually need others’ approval or emotional support to make it.
As soon as we can communicate, we are issued goals, and rewarded if we meet them. We start out wanting to succeed. Even at eight months old, we are prompted to say mama and dada, and are praised when we do it correctly. We are then asked to sit up, crawl, walk, learn manners, go to school, get good grades, graduate, be nice to others, and get a job. As our dependence on others decreases, the need for personal, and then professional, success takes center stage.
While success may be defined differently by different people, we all achieve a certain level of success, and that is commendable. Until my early thirties, even though I did not know it at the time, the arc of my life was aimed toward success. For me, it was academic excellence that led to my graduation as a physician and then entry into private practice. As achievements are realized, some of us begin to understand that there should be more to our lives than our own success and personal happiness. We begin adjusting the rudder of our lives to steer our focus toward others.
While most of us travel the first two phases successfully, few fully adopt significance. “Moving from success to significance” is a mantra we hear from many thought leaders today. I have, and it resonates with me. The principle explains that while success is about us, significance is about others. Books have been written about the second half of life, where the first is spent advancing our careers and our personal goals, but the second is devoted to giving back. Because this concept is meaningful to me, I engineered my life to build upon it and remain at this stage.
I became intentionally focused on self-improvement, with the goal to give more of myself to others. I pursued wisdom, so I could give more wisdom. I strived for more experience, so I could share my experiences with others. I garnered more resources, so I could help more people. This is a good place to be. It has given my life meaning. But a few years ago, a new level of dissatisfaction started creeping in. While a few of us live out our lives in the stage of Significance, a sliver of us move through to the next stage. It is one I have wrestled to understand over the last few years. But as I share with you what I have learned, my hope is that it will help you get even more meaning from your own life.
I want to credit my brother for helping me understand this stage. He and I go on a trip together once a year. He is a family doctor like me, so we both leave our practices and aim to connect and have a little fun and create memories along the way. My brother has been talking to me for years about the futility of our efforts from the perspective of the Eternal God. We usually go round and round on the subject, and I tell him the great things I am discovering by helping others become better leaders and more effective human beings. Then he retorts, “But does it really matter?”
He and I usually fight strongly in debating these issues, and we often arrive at what seems to be a deeper understanding. Neither of us relents if we don’t quite see it the way the other one does. I have held my ground on this issue of Significance for years. But after wrestling with the idea, I am beginning to see it more clearly.
Feeling significant, as in wanting to help others, is great, but it has one major flaw. It presupposes that we are at the center of helping others, that we are purveyors of wisdom, of help, of kindness, and of grace—that goodness and altruism come from us. We are good, and we can do much good. As this thought felt too self-righteous, I moved to a more common perspective that it is God’s goodness that is simply shining through me. But ME was still there. I want God to use me because I want to feel significant. The stage of Significance is me-centric, albeit aimed at helping others: “I want to feel significant because of something good I did.”
Insignificance is not a feeling that we are unworthy, unconfident, or incapable. Going from the Significant stage to the Insignificant means finally understanding that from the perspective of eternity, from God’s point of view in His perfection and glory, our good works, our wisdom, our helping others barely registers on the radar. Our life is but a vapor, the Bible says.
I was recently in Paris in front of the Notre Dame cathedral. If you have been there, you may remember an imposing statue of Charlemagne. In the 800s Charlemagne, who came from the Franks, consolidated the warring factions of central Europe and is credited with being the father of the French Empire, and now Republic. He also became the first Holy Roman Emperor, blessed by the pope to preside over the fractured regions to make the successor to the Roman Empire in the West. The statue shows him strong and confident on his horse, looking invincible. But the statue has also become old and faded. As I sat in front of it reflecting, I thought about our human condition, how successful we aim to be (Charlemagne was successful by any measure), how significant we desire to be (he brought glory to the church). But in the end, all that is left of us at best are memories, and perhaps a statue, that may not even be well-maintained.
It is a hard truth to wrap our heads around, but I believe that we must rest in the fact that we are insignificant. In that fact, we can be relieved when we don’t measure up, and we can remain humble when we sense ourselves feeling proud, or smart, or wise, or superior.
All these stages compete and fight for supremacy in our lives. Only a few of us reach the stage where we see ourselves as insignificant, the healthy insignificant I described. But we must not stay in the insignificant stage. I became depressed when I started realizing that all “my good works” may not even make a meaningful impact on the world in which I live. When we get to what I see as the last stage—Peace—we will see all our worth, and the value of all our work, only through the lens of Eternal Life.
For me, as follower of Jesus Christ, Biblical truths guide my life. I am part of an eternal march that many times I don’t entirely understand. I surrender my insignificance to God’s wisdom. I obey. I still do good with vigor, maybe even better than ever before, but not to be and feel significant. Rather I do good in order to fulfill what God designed me and destined me to do. My only real significance is my immortal soul. Everything else fades into the darkness.
And this gives me peace.
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