What makes us special in a world of 7 billion? Let me begin with a story. It was a warm summer’s day in California 1967. A lady’s going for her evening walk, and she stumbles across a violin. Apparently abandoned by the side of the road, she picks it up and takes it home. She brings it home and she eventually gives it to her nephew. Now her nephew says, “thank you very much, auntie”, but he’s not interested in learning to play the violin. So, he just puts it in his cupboard, and it stays there for years and years. The boy grows up, he becomes a man, and he marries. His wife, a lady by the name of Teresa Salvato, one day discovers this violin in the attic and she decides she’s going to learn to play it. So, she starts taking lessons, but she needs to eventually take it along to the violin repair shop for a tune up. So, in 1991, now 27 years after the date that the violin was found by the side of the road, she brings it into the violin store. Now, if someone had asked her, how much is that violin worth, she would have said, “No idea. I know nothing about the violin.” But the violin experts quickly realized that this was no ordinary violin. In fact, it was a very special violin. So special it even had its own name. The name of this violin was the Duke of Alcantara. A grand sounding title, but that was the name given to the violin by the person who made the violin 267 years ago. A man by the name of Stradivarius. The violin that was found on the side of a road that Teresa had been learning to play on was a Stradivarius violin worth over £1,000,000 (and just lying there on the side of the road). This is a true story. You can Google it. Would you like to know how the violin got there? The second violinist of the University of California pleaded to use his violin in a concert and eventually was granted the request. Now, have you ever left something really valuable on the top of your car? This is what happened to the second violinist of the University of California, who, I think, was never seen or heard from again.
Now, Stradivarius violins remind us that some things in life are truly special, truly unique. They require that we treat them with dignity and with respect. But what is it that makes something special? What makes something unique? What makes something valuable? To really get to the point of our question this morning. What is it that makes you special in a world of 7 billion? What makes your life significant? What gives you value? Now, we can know the identity of, or the value of a violin based on its identity. And we can know the identity of a violin based on its origin. Could it be the same for us? If so, then our value as human beings cannot be understood without reference to our true identity, which itself cannot be understood without reference to our ultimate origin. But what happens if, as a society, we lose connection with our true identity, who we are, and our ultimate origin where we came from? What happens as a society if we increasingly move away and remove God from the picture? What happens to our understanding of essential worth and dignity of human beings?
For the atheist who believes that there is no creator God there, there’s nothing more to reality than a purely physical universe, then everything we are, everything we feel, everything we hold deeply is just at bottom, physical processes playing themselves out in a complex system of cause and effect. To quote a famous quote by an atheist psychologist B.F. Skinner “Man is a machine.” A complex machine of course, but in the end, simply a machine. And in that respect, his behavior is completely determined in accordance with physical laws in operation.
Now, I’m tempted to respond to this assertion by saying, “why should we believe anything Skinner says or writes, if everything he says, and writes is predetermined?” But laying that aside for the moment, he believes that, and many people believe that as well. If you see life through that belief, what is it that makes anything special? If we’re all just dancing to our DNA, who does that make special? DNA. But what are we in that story? We’re just puppets. Somehow the part has become more important than the whole. We’re not the main character in the story anymore, our DNA is. No surprise then that many young people are growing up and wondering to themselves, “am I even special? Am I even significant? Is there anything which makes a human being special or significant?”
Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. He argued that there’s nothing that makes us essentially human, let alone essentially special. He argued, as an atheist, “that since there’s no God who designed us, then a human has no blueprint, no essence, no nature. Therefore, we must create our own nature, our own value, our own identity.” In other words, the canvas is blank, and you can create who you are. And now as we look at some of the things, we’re going to be looking at today, thanks to the wonders of technology in the 21st century, the story is even better. There are no borders to this canvas. We’re promised now, or if not now in the future, a limitless canvas on which to paint the glory of our lives and who we are. At least that’s the promise. But it’s rooted in this idea of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (Sartre’s partner) writing from the same existentialist perspective. This idea that, as she says, “… one is not born a man or a woman, one becomes one. You lead your nature where you want it to go because it doesn’t offer you a script, a plan, or a path. You’re free to make yourself and remake yourself ad infinitum because you aren’t defined and don’t have to be defined by anything except what you want, your own desires.” But here’s the question; if, in Sartre’s view, a human being comes into the world with no innate identity, why do we feel the need to create one? Where does that longing for a unique personal identity come from?
Do you have a dog? You may have noticed, a dog has no such existential questions provided you feed it, pat it, water it, and shelter it, a dog is very content. (Cats, on the other hand, are a completely different story. Cats, in my opinion, are narcissists.) But cats, dogs, and other animals don’t concern themselves with existential questions like, “who am I?” So why do we? Why do we even care whether or not we’re significant? I want to suggest, the reason we have a fundamental human need to feel significant is because we are significant. We want to feel special because we are special. Even our fairy stories, which G.K. Chesterton says, “the deepest truths are found within”, tell us this truth. Think of it, the Ugly Duckling, other classics like Cinderella, Shrek one, two and three. All the classics speak of this human longing to be someone special. But sadly, we don’t often feel that significant or that special.
I spent the majority of my school years stifled by this constant sense of anxiety that if I was really honest with myself, I wasn’t anybody special, I wasn’t standing out from the crowd. And I remember I worked in a supermarket (weekends and Thursday evenings), stacking shelves and pushing trolleys for about £3 an hour. Yet, I decided it would be a really great idea to spend about £200 of my hard-earned cash to buy a pair of Oakley sunglasses on the basis that they were very, very cool. Now they were cool, and I thought that they would enhance my coolness factor because I noticed that a lot of the Australian sporting greats were wearing these glasses. And I decided by a process of indisputable logic that if they were great and wearing these glasses, and if I were these glasses, I too would become great, special significance, and somebody. Can you relate to what I’m sharing here? Or is it just me that has experienced anxiety about whether people, when they look at me, think, “now there’s somebody special, or when they look at you, they just look right through you?” A wise person once said, “don’t worry about what other people are thinking about you because they’re not. They’re thinking about themselves.” And that’s so true. And I wish someone wise would have pointed out that simple truth to me when I was a young man. But it’s so easy to fall into anxiety about how others rate us on the social scale of significance that even a technical name for this anxiety is called status anxiety. The philosopher Alain de Botton describes status anxiety like this, he says,
“People who hold important positions in societies are commonly labeled somebodies and everyone else we label nobodies. So, somebodies are highly visible and admired nobodies are all but invisible. One of our greatest fears as human beings is to be unseen. To be invisible. Nobody wants to be invisible. Nobody wants to be a nobody. But in a world with so many people, not everybody, we reason, can be somebody.”
That’s the problem. That nobody wants to be a nobody, but not everybody can be somebody. Nobody wants to be a nobody. But in a world of 7 billion, not everybody can be somebody. So where does that leave us? In competition with everybody. Everybody is competing with everybody to be a somebody, to be significant, to stand out from the nameless crowd. But wouldn’t you agree that everybody in competition with everybody is not the healthiest foundation for universal human happiness and flourishing? Sadly, however, competition is the narrative that we increasingly live by.
Have you ever noticed how many movies and TV shows depict life as a competition and others in life as the competition? Think of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, or Frank Underwood in House of Cards, or Daenerys Taragaryen in Game of Thrones. Big shows for many people. These shows are accurate and insightful metaphors, revealing life for what it really is, a game with winners and losers. And it does not pay to be a loser, as these shows make graphically clear, in the game of life. Unsurprisingly, so many young people today are growing up with a view that unless they make it to the top, they will never be happy. They will never be significant. And getting to the top normally means becoming wealthy or famous or the best in one’s field of sport, study, career, or art. And unless we become wealthy or famous or the best in our field, we failed at life, we failed as a person, and we are a failure.
But that’s the wrong narrative to live by, because, well, firstly, failure is an event. Failure is not a person. You’re not a failure. If you’ve ever been told you’re a failure or you’ve told yourself you’re a failure, that’s a lie. It’s just untrue because failure is an event. Failure is not a person. To equate failing with being a failure is to make the mistake of conflating who you are with what you do, but they’re not the same thing.
Secondly, according to research by University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, if we try to base our sense of self-worth and significance on external sources of achievement, such as physical appearance or success in career studies, sport music or the arts, travel, or relationships, it’s going to result in more stress, anger, academic problems, relationship conflicts, and higher levels of drug and alcohol abuse and symptoms of eating disorders. Why is that? Well, if our life’s motto subconsciously becomes, I achieve, therefore I am. Then if we don’t achieve, we don’t exist. We lose our only foundation for our sense of self. It’s just inner collapse. The other major problem associated with the I achieve, therefore I am mentality is that if I think that I am what I do, then my sense of significance will be judged on how well I feel I’m doing. But how well I feel I am doing will inevitably be based on how well I feel I’m doing in comparison to others. But if that’s the case, I’ve now put myself in a situation where my sense of self-worth is inversely proportional to how well others around me are doing. And if that’s the case, it becomes genuinely difficult to celebrate the success of those around me (even people who are friends). In other words, if we base our sense of significance entirely on what we do and what we achieve, it changes the way that we see ourselves and the way that we see each other.
Now, I mentioned that I worked in a supermarket in my youth. When I worked there, I learned a few things. And if you’ve worked in retail, you will know that a product’s success has much to do with where it’s placed on the shelf. And according to research, shoppers come in, they look at the shelf, they scan from left to right, and they make the purchasing decision in fewer than 8 seconds. And if your product isn’t one that people are choosing in that 8 second window, then retailers aren’t going to let your product continue to take up valuable shelf space. That’s why eye-catching packaging and clever marketing are so important. And the different suppliers who come into the store try all sorts of ways to convince the retail store owner to put their particular product on the shelf; the place that will get the most by which, if you’re interested, is eye level because eye level is buy level. Good suppliers, as well as that, will try to buddy up to the store owner and try to offer all sorts of incentives to get them to put their product on the shelf. And it’s really interesting when two competing suppliers come into the store at the same time. The dynamic is so funny. Rarely do they smile at each other and say, “isn’t it cool that we sell really similar products?” That doesn’t happen. It’s actually a very awkward relationship between the two competing suppliers. But here’s my question, what happens to human relationships when everybody is competing with everybody for that contested shelf space, that coveted space where we are seen, recognized, valued, and chosen? What happens is we tend to treat ourselves and others as objects, comparing and evaluating each other the way that we might in a marketplace. And sociologists have written about this tendency towards objectification or commodification of the human person.
But this tendency has received a turbo boost in the last few years through the way in which social media is shaping society (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), not just places we socialize, but places we market our lives and compete for attention and acceptance. In the critically acclaimed sci-fi series Black Mirror. Each episode explores, in different ways, disturbing ways in which technology is shaping society. One of the most memorable episodes imagines a world in the not-too-distant future in which we’re completely dependent upon social media and can rate one another out of five stars based on anything from appearance to even the most briefest of interactions; everything from that sideways glance that you gave the woman walking past you on your morning commute to the lack of enthusiasm that you displayed for the birthday gift that your coworker gave you. And these ratings have real world implications. If you drop below four stars, you start to lose some friends, plummet below three stars, and you could lose your job and be barred from certain businesses or gatherings. Now, one article in Business Insider Magazine said, “this is actually not too far-fetched from the world we live in now.” Just imagine if you combined your Uber rating with the amount of likes you got on Facebook and the number of replies you received on Twitter in the last month. Now imagine that that singular rating determined everything about your life from where you work, to the home you were eligible to to live in. And this episode got a lot of people talking and wondering, was this just a parody of the way things is now? Or a prophetic vision of where we’re headed if we’re not too careful? A new report by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK entitled, Hashtag Status of Mind, talks about how social media platforms are impacting the wellbeing of young people and has concluded that Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter all demonstrated decidedly negative effects on young people’s overall mental health, increasing anxiety, depression and problems with self-identity and body image. The author of the report said that these platforms draw young people to compare themselves against unrealistic, largely curated, filtered and Photoshop versions of reality. According to Dr. Jessica Strebel, who presented the lead study at the American Psychological Association on the effect of new dating apps like Tinder, people are living in a surreal well, creating these unattainable ideals and expectations that no one can meet. It’s creating a 24 seven constant need for impression and appearance management. And according to Britain’s NHS, the number of young people being admitted to hospital suffering from anxiety has tripled in the last five years. And John Cameron, who heads up the leading national helpline for young people in a recent article in The Telegraph, said “these problems are often impacted by a need to keep up with friends and have that perfect life. And the 24/7 nature of technology means that young people can never escape this pressure.”
Turns out that the freedom that Sartre and De Beauvoir and other existentialist philosophers talked about, the freedom to make yourself and remake yourself ad infinitum, because you don’t need to be defined by anything except what you want. It’s not a freedom to slavery. It’s a burden because it’s all on you. This relentless, never-ending task of having to create, manufacture, and maintain your own sense of identity and self-worth and significance, it’s on you. And thanks to social media, it’s now a 24/7 full time job. And that’s the nub of the problem. If we don’t know who we are, then as psychologist James Hollis puts it, “our tendency becomes, I am what the world says I am. And if you were born after 1980 and the world is online, then the world is always keeping score.” New York Times columnist David Brooks observes that, “even though technology means that we’re more connected than ever before in human history, we’re actually in a crisis of disconnection. There’s a lot of loneliness, a lot of solitude. There’s a lot more anxiety borne of competing than there is connecting born of intimacy.” And it’s not just the millennial generation who are struggling here. This is part of the human problem that we’re struggling to find significance and self-worth and acceptance and what we do and what we can achieve. And it’s just not working because this is a burden that we were never designed to bear.
Now, as a father, I can remember feeling so happy when I overheard my then four-year-old daughter Grace, singing to herself in the bedroom when she thought no one was listening. And this is what she was singing, she sang, “daddy loves me. He really, really loves me. Even if I’m really, really, really bad. He still loves me, and Jesus will always love me…” and then she went really high, “too!” Beautiful, right? She sings a lot. And I know what’s going on in her heart because she sings. If you could have seen me, I was behind the door and I was just like, “Yes!” What made me so happy was, I just knew she gets it. She gets it that she’s loved for who she is, not for what she does or how she performs or how she behaves. And unfortunately, that’s not a message that she will get, as she grows up, from Instagram or whatever replaces it in Snapchat or school or the university or the workplace. But it’s the message she’ll get from me. And it’s a message that she should get from church because it’s the message that her heavenly Father has for every one of us.
Do you know, even that small percentage of people who do achieve the sort of wealth and fame that makes someone stand out from the crowd, you just see time and time again, it just leaves a person, if that is all that is, ultimately unsatisfying. It’s just anti-climax. Perhaps the biggest celebrity of the 20th century was the king, Elvis Presley. And a reporter once asked Elvis the following question, “Elvis, when you first started playing music, you said you wanted to be rich, famous, and happy. You’re now rich and famous. Are you happy?” To which Elvis replied, “I’m lonely as hell.” And that was six weeks before he died. Markus Persson, a legend in the world of computer gaming, created Minecraft, the most successful game in history, sold it to Microsoft for two and a half billion. Months later, he wrote the following tweet, “hanging out in Ibiza with a bunch of friends, partying with famous people, able to do whatever I wanted, and I’ve never felt more isolated.” The actor Nicole Kidman said it was winning an Oscar in 2002 that made her realize how empty her life really was.
If we were to measure all human lives on a scale of global celebrity and significance and impact, then Jesus of Nazareth is the winner (even according to an article in 2013 and Time Magazine). Speaking once to a crowd of people, Jesus asked them the following question, “what good is it for someone to gain the whole world and yet lose their soul?” Did you know, it’s actually possible to gain everything in life that you thought would make you special and, in the process, lose the one thing in life which really does make you special, your soul? According to Jesus, the most important thing about you is not anything that can be seen on the outside. It’s your soul. Your soul is the life center of you. And it’s more valuable than the whole world. It’s the only soul that you will ever have. It’s made for eternity. And it’s made for God. And like a precious Stradivarius violin, your soul bears the image of its maker. And however invisible you may sometimes feel, you’re definitely not invisible to your maker. For you are, the Bible tells us, the apple of God’s eye. You’re neither a mistake, nor an accident, nor a failure. You’re here on purpose. Made by God. Created in his image. You bear his signature. The signature of the master craftsman. Philosopher, Dallas Willard, Christian philosopher, puts it like this, “you’re an unceasing spiritual being, purposely made for an eternal future in God’s great universe.” You don’t need to make a name for yourself in order to become someone special. You already are special. You already have a name and identity, and it’s more precious than anything that this world has to offer. You’re God’s beloved, child of the King. That’s the reason why superficial and transitory things like money and fame and success, they perfectly find things in themselves, on balance, I’d prefer to have more money than not, but they can of themselves ultimately fulfill us. They’re incapable of offering that which our souls most deeply crave, which is to be fully seen and fully known and fully loved, everlastingly. And you don’t find a love like that anywhere except in God. It’s actually when we lose connection with the love of God that our souls get sick. The Bible calls that sickness sin. It’s the soul sickness that causes us to compete rather than to cooperate, to objectify rather than to dignify, to denigrate, rather than to celebrate, to pull others down, rather than lift them up. To love and respect, which is far better than where we end up, which is normally envy and resent.
This life is not a competition to be won. It’s an opportunity and a privilege to love and to be loved. The purpose of your life, according to Jesus, is to love and to be loved. This is what it’s all about. This is the real music that our souls were created to play, to love and to be loved. And it all starts with receiving the love of God.
We see this so clearly in the story of the encounter between Jesus and the tax collector by the name of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Now Zacchaeus, his name means “righteous one”, but when you get to know his story, he was anything but righteous. He was taking tax from his own people to give to the Romans and taking a cheeky slice for himself on the side. He was a small man, possibly easily overlooked physically. But despite all this, by cunning, this and cleverness and ruthless determination, Zacchaeus had found a way to become significant. He had fought and found a track in life that had allowed him to become very wealthy. He would have had a lot of people working under him and as chief tax collector, he had reached the top of his profession. However, despite all these achievements, there must have been something missing in his life because he went to extraordinary lengths to catch a glimpse of Jesus, even climbing up a tree to see over the crowd. And as Jesus walked past, we see that Jesus saw Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus wasn’t invisible to Jesus. Jesus knew Him, even knew his name. And in a dramatic moment of encounter, he says, Zacchaeus come down immediately. And Zacchaeus at that point had a choice. It’s a simple choice, a choice that we all face in our lives to ignore Jesus or to listen to him, to stay up high or to come down low. And Zacchaeus chose to humble himself. He didn’t put it off. He came down from where he was. And in the end, Jesus not only came into Zacchaeus home, more importantly, he came into Zacchaeus his heart, and the result was complete transformation of his soul. Zacchaeus says, “anyone I’ve cheated, I’ll give back four times the amount that I’m going to give away half my possessions to the poor.” No longer is his soul dedicated to the questions, “how can I be special?”, “how can I achieve?”, and “how can I get ahead?”, thanks be to Jesus, he just knew in the depths of his soul that he was special, that he was significant, that he was seen, recognized, valued, and chosen by God. And the song of His heart became no longer, how can I get but how can I give? And Jesus says to him, “today, salvation has come to this house.” Salvation means freedom. Freedom. Soul-freedom, and a relationship with Jesus that goes on forever. What’s God speaking to your heart? Hopefully it’s a reaffirmation that you are indeed seen, recognised, valued, and chosen by God like Zacchaeus; not because of anything that you’ve had to achieve, but just because you’re God’s child and He showered His grace on you through Jesus Christ. But I wonder if there is anyone reading this who recognises, yes, I am carrying around a burden, this relentless burden, of trying to make or manufacture my own sense of self-worth and significance in the world?
Jesus may be speaking to your heart and saying, come down. You already have an identity and it’s more precious than anything this world has to offer. So, come down. And “come to me. For I am meek and lowly of heart. And my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Come to me and you shall find rest for your souls.”