In conversation with a young adult I’ll call Sophie, we talked about the suicide of a friend of hers I’ll call Tommy. “He was the life of the party!” Sophie said, “He lit up the room. Everyone felt like his best friend.”
Clearly this Tommy’s relational life thrived.
“But he didn’t know what to do with his life. Everyone else was choosing careers and he just didn’t have a direction. I think that was why he . . .” Sophie trailed off.
Like a flash, I understood something I’d been struggling with—the liabilities of individualism. See, in an individualistic society like ours, personal achievement becomes paramount. With our emphasis on education, career, position, and self-development, we give the impression that each life should have a grand career narrative. In the best case, it should read like the biography of a Fortune 500 CEO, bestselling author, or media celebrity; but it at least needs to furnish a basis for parental bragging at the dinner party. The subtext of our emphasis whispers loudly that anyone who falls short of this grand narrative has failed.
Let’s run a little experiment right now. Close your eyes and think, “successful person.” If you’re like most of us, a parade of rich and famous people marches through your mind. At the very least, they’ll be educated, accomplished and professional. Chances are you won’t judge success by the criterion of solid, loving relationships. You won’t see many average, workaday people who loved well, if quietly. In other words, when we think of success, we tend not to include love in the equation.
God has given some of us strong drives and the ability to excel and achieve. We need to find a way to affirm these without indirectly devaluing those who “accomplish” less. Weirdly, many high achievers actually lack close relationships, having lowered them in priority.
Behavioral research shows it again and again—suicide rates soar higher in individualistic versus collective societies. Could it be that God made Tommy to function as relational glue in the community while he worked at a grocery store? And that in God’s eyes this would be a huge accomplishment, a fulfillment of Tommy’s life purpose? Could it be that as Tommy compared himself with the high achievers of the world, a lethal lie told him there was something wrong with him?
Dear loving, decent, average person like Tommy,
Tommy isn’t with us any more, but we want you to know you’re good enough. You’re the glue that keeps the community together. You’re the oil in the machinery of society that keeps the engine from seizing. You’re the heart of the church, the neighborhood, the workplace, and without a heart, the body dies. We love you, we need you, we want you. Stick with us achievement-obsessed throngs and maybe someday we’ll achieve what you already have.