August 1, 2004
Keep On

 Keeping Your Life
Strongly in a
Growth Mode
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In a popular book on realizing personal potential, entrepreneur Harvey Mackay offers a simple recipe for living successfully: You must want to achieve a dream “more than you want anything else in the world.” Only pursue a goal that passionately enthralls you, Mackay insists.

But, he adds, “most important, you have to be sure you never get it.*

Mackay is talking tongue-in-cheek, of course. He isn’t recommending that we prevent ourselves from reaching our dreams, nor is he encouraging self-sabotage. Nor is he saying that we shouldn’t celebrate our victories. Far from it. What he is saying is that we shouldn’t let a success become our final resting place. We should take what inspiration from it we can, then move on to new pursuits.

We do best not to let ourselves feel too successful, in other words. It’s far healthier to continue to feel that we still have worlds to conquer. He adds, “The successful people I know always have a carrot in front of them, slightly out of reach, no matter how many carrots they already have.”*

John Updike offered similar advice to writers in an interview featured in Time some years ago.* I’ve never forgotten his counsel, which has seemed like a personal admonition ever since. No one “goes bad” more frequently and thoroughly than writers, Updike noted. Authors who have a brush with success may conclude too readily that anything they write is wonderfully appealing. They stop agonizing over their material so much, and begin publishing first drafts rather than third. They lose their edge, and their readers lose their interest.

Humility, Updike observed, is one of the most essential requirements for good writing. We who write do best not to focus on our successes--the reviews, the accolades if they come. We should give our energy instead to the work ahead of us, and keep that challenge as great as possible. And we should never imagine that we’ve reached a plateau where we no longer need to go through the same arduous process that has enabled us to write effectively in the past.

Psychotherapist David Richo offers such counsel more broadly in Unexpected Miracles. Life presents us with many welcome surprises, Richo explains. Yet we must stay adequately challenged to be in a position to experience them; if we let ourselves become too comfortable, we blunt the possibility of surprise. “Are you setting up your life so that there will be no surprises?” Richo asks. “Is everything too orderly? What do you lose that way? Is fear behind your not being surprised very much these days?”*

Keeping Motivation Strong

One of the greatest challenges we face is knowing how to move forward with our life once we experience success or have a taste of it. Success can be a tonic to us--in the healthiest sense--boosting our self-esteem, giving us confidence that we can achieve our goals, and spurring us on to new dreams.

Success can also be a tranquilizer, lulling us into a life that’s too comfortable and predictable. Or it may inspire us to keep some challenge present, but not at a level appropriate to the potential God has given us or to our own need for growth and stimulation. Halford Luccock notes, “There is a major disaster when a person allows some success to become a stopping place rather than a way station on to a larger goal. It often happens that an early success is a greater moral hazard than an early failure.”*

We are always happiest, healthiest and most productive when our life is strongly in a growth mode. We are most likely realizing our potential when we are being driven by childlike enthusiasm for a dream, which fires us to spring out of bed when the alarm rings and move as quickly as we can to salvage every moment possible for working toward our goal.

This isn’t to say that we have to have a radically new dream on the horizon at all times. Dreams come in two varieties--those we pursue, and those we live out. Some achieve a dream early in life which fits them so well that they spend the rest of their life living it out--yet they do so with energy and creative initiative. In reality, they are responding to many new dreams, but these are ones that fit clearly within the cherished role in life they’ve attained.

Many of us go through periods like this. We’ve achieved a dream so meaningful, and demanding in its responsibilities, that we’re compelled to give our full attention to living it out. While we may pursue many goals related to this dream, we’re wisest not to let unrelated interests divert us.

Over a lifetime, though, most of us are not so unilateral in our approach to life, but we discover God’s plan through a more circuitous route. From time to time we need a clearly new dream to keep our life on the growing edge. For us, the temptation may be to settle prematurely for a level of accomplishment that doesn’t represent God’s best for us.

Pacing Ourselves

In stressing the importance of continuing to grow and pursue dreams, I don’t mean to downplay our need for leisure. We each need times when we turn off the mental generator. We need rest and relaxation daily and sometimes extended periods of leisure. I’ve long been impressed that Scripture--especially in its Sabbath teaching--gives more emphasis to the importance of rest than work. The Bible unquestionably views overwork as a greater threat to our well-being than laziness.

Scripture extols leisure, not as an end in itself, but as a chance to kekindle our motivation for the work God has called us to do. After Ezra and his highly motivated companions traveled from the Ahava Canal to Jerusalem, for instance, they “rested three days” before proceeding with their challenging mission (Ezra 8:32 NIV). The revitalizing role of rest is shown especially dramatically in Elijah’s recovery from burnout, detailed in 1 Kings 19:1-8.

Is it wrong, then, to seek leisure for its own sake? Is it unhealthy, for example, to dream of retirement as an opportunity for unending leisure?

I’ve personally known many retired people who for years yearned for the time to come when they could finally stop punching the clock and be free to enjoy life with few restrictions. Some of them disdained their professional work, and long endured an unsatisfying career with the hope for a major payback in retirement. Some of them truly enjoy their retirement--and I must confess they are an inspiration to me. Their examples encourage me to take life at a more reasonable pace and not to be so obsessive about work.

When I look at why these people enjoy retirement so much, though, I find in every case that their life still includes plenty of activity. Some are active in recreational, artistic or creative pursuits. Others, with large extended families, are circuit riders, visiting children and grandchildren, giving encouragement and helping with problems where they can. Others give extensive time to volunteer service or ministry. Retirement for these people is a treasured opportunity to pursue dreams that have been dormant or half-realized for much of their life. They are still very much about the business of realizing their potential.

Others are bored in retirement, and some are simply miserable. They had looked to retirement and it’s leisure as life’s ultimate prize, but it hasn’t delivered what it promised. They long for greater purpose in life, and a greater sense of being useful.

Others begin retirement eager to pursue certain activities that over time lose their appeal. Now they long for greater stimulation.

The challenge for those who find retirement unsatisfying is the lure of the comfort zone. They enjoy a lifestyle now that at least is comfortable and familiar. And they no longer have financial pressure--a greater benefit than we usually realize--to look for employment. The inertia can be broken in such cases. But it takes courage and decisiveness. It may also require defying conventional wisdom.

Retirement As Sabbatical?

One such individual who defied both inertia and conventional wisdom, and long benefited, was Robert Eisenberg. After working half a century in garment manufacturing, Eisenberg retired in 1970 at 72, selling Zabin Industries, which he had owned since 1954. “I was ready [for retirement],” he said, “but I found it boring after about 10 years.” At 82, he went back to work for Zabin, and continued working full-time for the company until 104, overseeing zipper production. “He’s got remarkable mental abilities,” owner Alan Failoa commented when Eisenberg was 103. “The longer I’ve dealt with him, the more I find myself forgetting his age.”*

It may be argued that his was simply a case of exceptional genetics. Yet it’s hard to resist the conclusion that Eisenberg’s decision to resume his former career added years to his life; it certainly added vitality to his years. His example is unusual (he was believed by many to be America’s oldest worker), and I’m not suggesting that most who are bored in retirement should jump back into their former profession at full throttle. It is the right step for some, though. Many others who are restless in retirement will find relief in resuming some sort of gainful employment.

What’s most helpful about Eisenberg’s example is that it provides a different model for thinking about retirement than our customary one--namely, retirement as sabbatical. This is a much more inspiring and helpful model for many of us than the traditional concept of retirement as endless leisure, for it encourages us to realize that, if we’re unhappy retired, we’re not locked in to staying so. There may be a multitude of new directions we can take with our life, including many we’ve never entertained. These options may include resuming a meaningful career.

If you find yourself unsatisfied in retirement, at least consider the possibility that God is intending this period as a sabbatical for you rather than a permanent vacation. If you take on a job or some meaningful new activity at this point, you’ll have a lifetime of experience to bring to your new calling, plus the benefit of the time you’ve taken to get refreshed and gain new perspective. The retirement-as-sabbatical model can be positively thrilling, especially if you’ve felt “put out to pasture” and doomed to stay there forever.

Embracing New Dreams

Let’s say you’re at a point in life where you’re fairly comfortable. You may be retired. Or you may be young and working eighty hours a week. But you’ve achieved some goals that are important to you. Now you’re content with your life as it is, and not greatly preoccupied with reaching for new horizons.

How do you determine if this comfort zone is healthy, or whether there is yet another star to which you should hitch a wagon?

One critical question is whether you are truly happy in this state. Your instincts will tell you a lot, if you read them correctly. In sorting them through, consider these questions:

Is there, in fact, a major improvement that you would welcome for your life? Do you fantasize about having this benefit?

Is there a skill you have long cherished for yourself, but have never developed or nurtured as fully as you would like?

Is there a need among people you know, or a more widespread need in the world, that you would love to help meet? Is there a problem others face that you dream of solving, or a contribution to others’ lives you dream of making?

Suppose you were at the end of your life, looking back over it. Would you feel there is unfinished business? Is there something you would seriously regret not having accomplished?

Perhaps it’s only too clear that the answer to one or more of these questions is yes. You have a dream--dormant though it may be--that could easily resurface with the right encouragement. If so, then I urge you to consider carefully whether you’re allowing the need for security to keep you from God’s best for your life.

Healthy and Unhealthy Dreams

I don’t deny that we can have dreams which are better left unpursued. Our need to feel important, or our compassion, may lead us to fantasize about taking a certain step with our life, when in fact we would have little affinity for the responsibilities the new role would require.

Jason, 55, has long dreamed of becoming a pastor as a retirement vocation. One motive is noble: he would thoroughly love sharing the gospel with people and having the best possible platform for winning others to Christ. He has another motive that is more complex and less trustworthy. He attended a missions conference as a young man, where the speakers urged those attending to enter the ministry as a career. He has been dogged with guilt ever since, fearing he may have settled for God’s second best by choosing accounting as his profession. He would relish the opportunity to atone for his possible mistake. And he would treasure the identity of being a pastor--a status he imagines would boost his self-worth enormously.

In reality, Jason would have little heart for the endless work with people necessary to minister effectively--the consensus building, the handholding, the motivating--not to mention the denominational politics. He would also find the preparation process for effective sermons and talks burdensome.

Jason’s pastoral dream, in short, is based too greatly upon the benefit he imagines would come to his self-esteem, and too little on a love for the actual work he would have to do. Each of us lays hold to a number of dreams like this during our lifetime--where we imagine we would savor the status of a certain role, that in reality we would not enjoy living out. These are dreams that are best kept in the enjoy-the-fantasy category.

Such fantasizing isn’t unhealthy, providing the roles we muse about themselves aren’t harmful or unhealthy. A certain amount of such unrealistic wish-dreaming, in fact, is normal, and vital to being human. It’s part of the necessary process of “trying on dreams”--where we sort through all the options that appeal to us, and settle on those that truly work for us. It’s simply important that we develop the discernment to distinguish between those dreams that fit us well and those that don’t.

With that disclaimer, we each entertain many dreams that do make good sense for us. We would not only love the distinction of achieving the dream, but would relate well to the new responsibilities required for us. The work and lifestyle changes the dream entails would fit our gifts and personality well.

These are dreams we should be careful not to let get snuffed out as life grows more comfortable. The questions I’ve suggested can help us recapture dreams for which we’ve lost the fire, and put them on the table again.

Giving Personal Vision a Fair Chance

Perhaps you’re not certain whether your answer to any of these questions is yes. Before you write off the possibility that important aspirations might still be brewing inside you, let me ask you to consider Moses’ example. God called him to spend the last third of his life in a role he found immensely satisfying. He thrived on the chance to lead his people and make a critical difference in their destiny. His relationship with God grew extraordinarily through it all, and his health seemed to benefit as well, for at the time of his death at 120, “his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone” (Deut 34:7).

Yet Moses initially held the opportunity God was offering him in contempt--even though God had spoken to him directly, with dramatic signs, and had assured him of success and of every measure of divine assistance. Moses was certain he didn’t want the job, convinced he would be a failure, positive he would detest the work. With the possible exception of Jonah, we don’t find a more stunning example in Scripture of someone resisting a call and failing to appreciate the fortuitous opportunity in front of them.

The opportunity God presented Moses, though, was ideal for him and fit his gifts and personality perfectly. Moses had grown up in Pharaoh’s household, and probably understood the palace culture and how to communicate with royalty better than any Israelite living then. He had also lived for decades with Jethro, the priest of Midian, certainly learning volumes about how to be an effective spiritual leader.

Most important, Moses had a burning, though long-repressed, instinct to fight injustice and champion better conditions for his people. In his late thirties, he killed an Egyptian whom he caught abusing an Israelite. Public resentment of his vigilantism, however, compelled Moses to flee Egypt for Midian. There he married Jethro’s daughter and, for the next forty years, tended sheep for the priest. Life in Midian was comfortable for Moses--an early retirement of sorts (Ex 2:21). Now, after four decades of peaceful shepherding, the passionate zeal of his youth had all but flickered out. God knew it was capable of re-igniting strongly, though, with the right prodding.

Moses’ example strikingly reminds us that we don’t always understand our own aspirations well. Fear--of both failure and success--as well as simple inertia, can keep us from perceiving what we most want to do or would be most effective doing. We shouldn’t be too quick to think we’ve recognized all the important horizons God has for us. Moses’ experience stirs us to look carefully at whether we’re allowing security needs or unreasonable fears to shut down our ability to dream.

This isn’t to say that if God leads us into a new vocation after retirement, it will necessarily require the radical acceleration of activity that occurred in Moses’ case. There are other important biblical examples to consider. Abraham, for instance, took a more leisurely approach to life in his later years than Moses did. Following his father’s death, Abraham “went out not knowing whither he went” (Heb 11:8 KJV). God brought major new adventures into Abraham’s life: the birth of Isaac, the experience of parenting, a military mission to rescue his cousin Lot, and remarriage after Sarah’s death--to name a few. Yet these events unfolded at a more relaxed pace than circumstances did for Moses. God never laid upon Abraham the intensive leadership responsibilities that he required of Moses. And overall, Abraham experienced much less disruption to his life than Moses did.

If Moses gives us a model of “retirement as sabbatical,” then, Abraham shows us the possibility of new dreams and adventures emerging within retirement. We see how widely God’s plans can differ for any two people. What Moses and Abraham both teach us is the importance of staying open to new adventure and of continuing to dream big about our life. We’re reminded, too, that we should never assume our life’s most important chapters have all been written.

Their examples also remind us that:

God gives us the ability to carry out important dreams, in spite of what we may perceive as inadequacies or even severe limitations.

He enlightens us to such opportunities both by inspiring new dreams, and by resurfacing old ones that have long lain dormant.

The fact that we’re not experiencing some burning new inspiration for our future at the moment doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll never experience fresh vision again. God’s timing in this matter varies greatly for each of us.

This last point is perhaps the most encouraging of all, for we can feel guilty or disheartened when no new dream seems to be emerging. We may berate ourselves for not thinking big enough, even though we may be trying sincerely to do so. If, in fact, we are eager to grow and enjoy new adventure, and stay open and expectant about our future, and continue to pray earnestly for God’s direction and strength--then we have strong reason to expect that he will, in his time, inspire fresh dreams that bring important new purpose to our life.

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