Many Americans set out to establish their identity by following desire and ambition. Individual freedom, self-determination and self-expression are our highest good. This is the cultural air we breathe. The problem is, it often doesn’t work out the way we had hoped.
Traditions, religions, received wisdom and social ties (such as family and community) have historically been the “meaning building” things of life (as author Judith Shulevitz puts it), but these aren’t how we find meaning anymore. We are pressured to find meaning and significance in our accomplishments and careers more than ever. It’s not working more that’s wearing us out; it’s that we are expecting more out of our work. It’s not meant to provide inner stability and meaning.
Shulevitz cites studies in her book “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.” “In 1991, the economist Juliet Schor advanced the now conventional thesis that global competition forced Americans to toil longer and rest less. She based this on rough estimates that people gave during interviews with U.S. Census takers over three decades. Meanwhile, two sociologists, John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, were asking people to fill out time diaries noting exactly how much time they spent on each activity of the day right after they’d done it. They concluded that Americans work less than they did in the 1960s.
How do you reconcile what people said with what their time diaries showed? “You acknowledge that Americans feel more pressed for time, whether they’re working harder or not,” Shulevitz writes.
Writer Sophie Gilbert explains how millennials have experienced burnout from what she calls “competitive individualism” amplified by social media. They are “more likely to be perfectionists, and therefore more likely to be depressed, anxious, unhappy, and dissatisfied with themselves.” She says modern adults have “constructed flimsy charades of identities based on what they think other people will want. They want to prove that their lives … are things to be admired, and that their homes, vacations, children, closets all function as projections of their best selves: organized, attractive, authentic. Unattainable.”
She defines “competitive individualism” as “the performance of the self becoming more important than the reality.” In other words, our sense of self is fragile.
This is no way to form an identity and find meaning, but unless you are completely disconnected and siloed from any consumption of cultural goods (media, entertainment, public education, etc.), this is how you’ve been formed to find your way in this world, whether consciously or subconsciously.
I want to suggest a different path that’s much older: prayer.
Does that surprise you? I've discovered the practice of prayer unlocks resources to provide a deep experience of meaning and significance. It is the context where we find the durable identity to persevere each season of life.
Recently I spoke with Mark Pagán, of the podcast “Other Men Need Help,” about male friendship, and he asked me what experience of friendship I would want to take into the next life. I told him that, as a pastor, it’s hard to be vulnerable, and most of us feel an inordinate pressure to never show weakness.
I experienced a long season of depression in 2015. I remember sitting in a diner with a close friend, sharing my inability to shake it. I was half expecting him to distance himself and give me some well-meaning encouragement that would end our meeting.
Instead he leaned in and listened. He asked probing questions. He demonstrated love. It was one of those moments where it was safe to fall apart with another person. I could just be myself and be loved, and that’s the experience I want to take into the next life.
Christianity teaches it can be experienced in this one, as well, and prayer is the regular context for it. While our modern world clamors to build an identity through performance, accomplishments and becoming what we think other people will want, Christianity teaches us that we can receive a deep identity.
The regular rhythm of prayer is being yourself and being loved by God. It’s the otherworldly experience of being weak but received into his transcendence.
I encourage you to experience being received not for adapting to what others think you ought to be but simply because God loves you. That’s called grace. The presence of God is a safe place to fall apart and be needy. In a world of performance, it’s a renewal.
St. Augustine tells us that humans have infinite desires. We’re actually made for infinite, transcendent things. When asked how to make sense of our ecological crisis, author Wendell Berry remarked that it shouldn’t surprise us since humans have infinite desires and our Earth has limited resources. We have infinite desires, so it’s no wonder we find ourselves with fragile and frustrated identities since we have been looking to fulfill these desires in finite, limited things such as work, accomplishments and being received by our peers.
The practice of prayer is how humans with infinite desires meet God, who is infinite fullness. The new year can be a time to reorient how we seek God’s fullness and joy.
There is much to learn about prayer, but it’s easy to get started. Begin by reading Psalms in the Bible and see how believers have prayed and what they’ve prayed for. Read a book on prayer. Find a community of faith and see how they pray and what they seek.
Christians often come to prayer not knowing what to say, whether because of suffering, weariness or feeling distant from God. That’s okay. God, who is our help, invites us just to be present. He tells us not to expect to be received for our many words but because we are loved.
John Starke is the lead pastor at Apostles Church Uptown in New York City. His book “The Possibility of Prayer” will be published by InterVarsity Press in February.