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Everybody feels the need for their life to be validated somehow. I haven't been through one, of course, but it seems like this is the root of the mid-life crisis - feeling like you have not amounted to what you should have and that opportunity has passed for significant life validation.

I think that everyone wants to be significant in some way. I view this as neither a good nor bad thing in itself, but it often gets expressed in ways that ultimately become one or the other. This is where individual and cultural vales come into play in big ways.

I think it can be expressed very simply by this: a while back while I lived in Abilene, I took a bike ride one day along a set of railroad tracks in town that ended up taking me through a very old cemetery. I became fascinated by the various grave markers and what they seemed to say about the people underneath them.

Some were very similar to this:
(click to enlarge)

Whereas others were more along these lines:

Now, it is true that I know absolutely nothing about the people buried in each place. But what I can claim is the impression that each leaves with me. I suppose it true that for most people, your grave marker is your last and sometimes only permanent remnant of your life.

What I see in the first marker is a touching memorial to a man who obviously had a strong influence on those around him. The headstone is very basic and unremarkable, but the message that it carries about the man is profound. And probably the most important aspect of it is that it was a tribute to him penned by other people, in this case family who had a great love for him and who wanted to express their knowledge of his character for as long as that small grave stone exists.

The second photo, however, is of a large mausoleum that stands high above the ground and is hard to miss. It definitely draws attention. When you approach it, you see two great big door-like granite slabs on the front with two names on it. This was obviously very expensive and they went to great lengths to build this monument to themselves and their apparent wealth. But other than a big mausoleum that ultimately looks like a roadside restroom with a couple of names on it, the casual visitor learns nothing of their lives. It only exudes a message that these people must have been important for some reason, but the only clue is their big corpse-house. I come away completely unimpressed.

But I wonder if this is not a huge temptation to which all of us are subject? I've been in this post-college "real adult" world for a little while now and there seems to be this weird wave that comes over people that now they really have to start building and achieving something, namely success of some sort. This is great, but I'm not sure that success has been properly defined. At this point, things seem to take a more material turn than ever. People start putting all of their energy into careers, money, houses, cars, and the undefined "future." Even very well-meaning people narrow into very good things like spouses and family, but all of this combined sometimes creates people who are consumed with building and maintenance of their own worlds. Everything starts to be judged on its ability to advance their own agendas for self. Ultimately, what I see are a lot of isolated and sometimes lonely people who may be achieving some level of success but are never satisfied. I, of course, am not immune to this.

One of the big ironies to me is that many people look back on their college days as some of their best. Let's inventory the typical college life for a moment: often living in the smallest space you will ever occupy, on the smallest income you will ever have, with the least amount of possessions of your adult life, and probably single for at least most of the time. In the minds of most adults, this would be a huge step backwards. But why do many people love their college years so much?

My answer comes in two words: relationships and experiences. For many people, college is the time when relationships and experiences are intense. There is a communal experience of college that necessarily reduces the individualistic drive and increases the dependence that people have on each other, especially in a place where resources (money, personal space) are relatively low. There is also a certain freedom that is new in the lives of many students that often creates a sense of experimentation with new experiences. I know what you are thinking, but the reality is that this is more often a good thing than bad.

Some of you know that the campus ministry I lead had a big alumni weekend last October, and many people from all across the nation trekked back to little Manhattan, Kansas, to reminisce on the amazing lives they lived during their college years - and they did this entirely because of the relationships and experiences they had during their time here.

So, before I get too far off the original topic, I want for all of us to continually ask ourselves how we are finding the validation of our lives - through long work hours and new houses, or through the continual exploration of relationships and experiences? If we went into the ground with a simple unmarked headstone, how many will gladly engrave it for you with their own tribute? Or are you trying to build your own grandiose, soulless mausoleum?

*Kudos to everyone who gets the joke.

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Blogger Ruth Erin - 8:03 AM

I don't get the joke, but I do get the rest of it. Good observations/reflections. A compliment to the things that have been on my own mind these last few days (it's that time of year). By the way, I have always had a fascination with old graveyards that most people seem to think is morbid. I argue-- death is the only certainty in life. And there is something beautiful and sad about the way we choose to redeem one another after the fact, with carefully chosen words.    

Blogger Wes and Ellen - 11:08 AM

Pizza kills?


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