Last year I turned 60. That’s two-thirds of the way through my natural lifespan, if my genetics are any indication. The milestone led me to an insight that likely hits most people at some point:
When all is said and done, my contribution to the world will be tiny. Very, very tiny.
That’s true for all of us, or nearly so, when we look at ourselves through the vast arc of human history and the ever-expanding universe. A select few have altered the course of humanity: Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, Martin Luther, Thomas Edison, the inventor of the wheel. Even our most brilliant scientists—Einstein and Newton, for instance—have revealed to us what has always been true.
Please note that I said tiny. Not zero. I’ve come to believe that every last one of us, from prophets and monarchs to the destitute to the unborn, have some kind of effect. Most of the time we never know what effect we’ve had; half the time we don’t even know we’ve had an effect. And yet even the random smile at the right moment may accomplish more than we can imagine.
For me, St. Monica is the role model of this. Her main achievement in life was to pray for and shadow her wayward son. She took this humble mission and made a life out of it. We might never have heard of Monica were it not for the writings of that son: Augustine, one of Christendom’s greatest theologians.
This does leave us with a question, though. Assuming the existence of a God who created the world and all that is in it—including human beings—why didn’t God make everyone like Augustine? Why isn’t everyone significant? Can you imagine how much more progress we would have made by now as a species?
Several answers come to mind. You can take the atheist’s approach and say this is one more bit of evidence against the existence of God. You can wonder whether God did this to instill humility in the very fabric of our existence. Given how essential humility is to our survival—it fosters cooperation, empathy, love, and other good things—this argument may have legs.
But what haunts me is another explanation altogether: God is just not that into efficiency.
This strikes me as liberating. If God is not efficient, we don’t have to be efficient either, not with the general course of our lives. We do not have to climb a ladder to achievement or success. In fact, maybe nothing much “of substance” has to happen at all. What we are called to—as I’ve been learning, oh so slowly, for years now—is not results, but faithfulness; not the achieving, but the doing.
This gives us the freedom to screw up, to explore, to follow God where we hear God leading, to not worry whether it’s “going anywhere” or “moving forward.” It aligns us with the larger reality of our tininess: because our impact will be small, our boldness in taking initiative can be great. We don’t have to hesitate at a big change or decision as though the course of history depends on it—because it probably doesn’t.
Yes, there are things we must attend to: matters of justice and mercy and the everyday stuff of getting through another day. This too is part of our tiny place in the universe. If we can embrace that tiny place, we’re looking at a life that is far more joyful.