“Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.” – D.L. Moody
I came across a documentary this morning called “In Light of Eternity.” The film chronicles the travels of Francis and Lisa Chan to East Africa, where they partnered with an organization that is committed to helping young women escape the sex industry and to care for orphans and children in extreme poverty. The film opens with a famous D.L. Moody quote that reads, “Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”
I was immediately struck by the power and accuracy of this statement. There are so few things in this life that have eternal value. So many of the successes and failures that we spend our lives striving for are only surface deep. They can’t actually give life purpose or eliminate its meaning—sometimes we think they can, but it’s all a fallacy. Meaning in life doesn’t come from climbing the corporate ladder, cheering for the winning team, or being the perfect Pinterest mom.
Succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter gives us a false sense of accomplishment. It tricks us into thinking that we’ve arrived and achieved something significant, when really, we have only delayed the onset of that inevitable feeling of emptiness that always catches up with us. It catches up with us because we were made for something more than momentary success, and I think there is something deep within us—at the core of who we are—that knows this to be true. There is something in us that yearns for our lives to have a significance of eternal proportions.
Why do you think that is? Why do you think we are so eager for a sense of value and worth that matters beyond this lifetime? I mean, most of us can’t even find a sense of purpose and meaning in this moment, never mind for generations to come. And yet there is this aching, this deep hunger within our souls, to do something important and to leave a legacy.
I think it’s because there is more to life than the here and now. There is more to it than what exists within the tiny, little bubbles that we experience life in day after day. There is a great big world out there, full of people that matter. People that are hurting. People that are living in situations of extreme suffering, poverty, and oppression. People that are dying of physical starvation and others who are dying of emotional malnourishment. And no amount of pretending will make this reality go away.
We know this. We know this deep within our souls. And yet we go through life striving for personal success. We walk through our days as victims of our own battles, blind to the needs of the world around us. I live in a constant fear of failure. I am an extreme perfectionist, and have a very low tolerance for my own mistakes. But focusing on the details of each success or failure in my life only serves to distract me from matters of greater importance. It makes my own suffering become the center of my world.
But this isn’t my world. And this isn’t your world. This is our world—it has been given to all of us to share, and to live in, and to look after. We have a responsibility to one another, all of us do. It’s what connects us as the human race. And I think that so many of the great societal problems and political rifts that we see suffocating our world today are, at their core, a result of the fact that we have lost this sense of responsibility. We just don’t care.
That seems like a harsh statement, but I can’t manage to wrap my mind around how anything else could possibly be true. We—the human race—stand around and watch the extreme suffering in the world and wonder why God isn’t doing anything about it. But what are we doing about it? No really, what are we doing about it? We give up a dollar a day to help someone in need, or we march for a cause, or we post videos and statuses to blast our radical ideas off into cyberspace. But is it really coming from a place of deep and selfless concern for one another? Or are we simply trying to put a Band-Aid on that gaping wound inside of us that we don’t want to acknowledge?
This didn’t start out as a rant! I promise. And I want to be very clear that I am talking to myself here as much as to anyone else (which is always the case with anything that I write). But I think it is important to note that it is easy to fall into this trap of making sacrifices that are not truly selfless. We don’t necessarily even realize that we are doing it, but at the end of the day, each and every action we take serves some kind of purpose. And sometimes we need to stop and ask ourselves what motivations are truly driving us.
“Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”
I don’t want to reach the end of my life and find that the things I spent my years striving for were all for not. I don’t want to look back on my life and wish that I hadn’t neglected my responsibility to care about the people that I share this world with. I don’t want to experience overwhelming success, only to find that my successes were shallow and meaningless. I’d rather fail in the eyes of the world and discover something of eternal value.
How about you? What successes are you focused on? What motivations are driving you? And how do you find purpose and meaning in it all?