(FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m writing this post as an entry to a contest that Donald Miller is running right now for free tickets to his ‘Living a Better Story’ seminar in September. You shouldn’t take that to mean, however, that this post is disingenuous or fictitious in any way. I just thought it might be confusing when I started talking about what I hoped to gain/learn from the seminar if I didn’t tell you that up front.)
I recently read Donald Miller’s latest book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. The book chronicles his journey into deeper understanding about what makes a great life through the process of editing his own life story for a movie screenplay. If you’ve never read anything by Donald Miller, A Million Miles might be the best entry point into his works. I highly recommend it.
The main thought behind A Million Miles is that the elements that make up a great story are also the elements that make up a great life. The working definition of a story that Miller uses is, “A character who wants something and who overcomes conflict to get it”. And so the basic questions for any story (and for our lives) are: 1) Who is this character?, 2) What does the character want?, 3) What is standing in the character’s way?, and 4) How does the character overcome the obstacle(s) to their goal? So as I read, I began to ask myself those questions. As I did so, I was forced to come to a difficult realization.
I have a pretty good understanding of who I am and who God created me to be, I think. So the answer to the first question, for me, is pretty simple – child of God, follower of Christ, husband to Michelle, pastor, teacher, music lover, sports fan. Some day I will add ‘father’ to that list, hopefully. These things make up the core of who I am.
But that second question threw me for a loop. I began to examine my life – my marriage, my ministry, how I spent my free time – to try to answer that question. The difficult moment came when I realized that I didn’t have any actual goals. I was floating. I was simply existing in my current situation. There was no drive, no finish line to push on towards.
You might think that living a life with no defined, measurable goals would actually be better, because with no defined goals there could be no defined obstacles. And also, you could go wherever you want and do whatever you want. The reality, I believe, is that floating through life like this is incredibly unfulfilling. But more than that, it’s just ultimately boring. Scripture says that God has fixed eternity in the hearts of all people. This is why vastly different cultures in all ages and in all parts of the world all end up with some sort of religion. So I think something deep in us is wired to look forward towards an end-goal. And with any goal comes obstacles, and with obstacles comes the need to surmount obstacles, and with that process comes intrigue, excitement, and fulfillment.
So I realized that my life was kind of boring. Sure, I had vacations, youth events, we hung out with friends sometimes, tried new restaurants, and things like that… But there was no real goal, near or far, to shoot for.
Around the same time that I was reading A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, my wife Michelle and I started getting serious about our health. I have a family history of heart disease and other ailments aimed at shortening life, so we both wanted to start doing whatever we could to lessen the risk that I’ll be making an early exit from our children’s lives (as my father did because of leukemia). And, in keeping with what I was reading and sharing with her, we decided to set a goal that I don’t think either one of us would ever have envisioned for ourselves – we are going to run a 5k race. The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure is happening in our area in October, and we’ll be there at 7 AM to run it with each other and some students from our youth group. And after that, we’ve got our eyes on Charleston’s annual Cooper River Bridge Run next April – a 10k run over Charleston’s tallest and longest bridge.
We’re also both pursuing graduate degrees. Michelle started hers in May, and I will be starting mine as soon as I can find that magical combination of a degree I want and the opportunity to pursue it.
What is most amazing to me is that the simple act of setting a definite goal (finishing the 5k, getting a masters degree – things we want) has made the things that we don’t like (the obstacles to attaining our goals – running for fitness and studying/writing papers) endurable for us. As we have gone through the first few weeks of training for the race in October, I have been pondering what other distasteful or painful or tedious things (that I tend to avoid now) I might be willing to endure for the sake of reaching a goal I want to reach. I am actually excited about the prospect of overcoming more obstacles in my life in the pursuit of other goals.
I want my life story to be exciting. I want to be able to stand around in a group of people and talk about things I’ve done or places I’ve been or people I’ve met or ways that God has used me, and have the group be amazed. I don’t want that kind of story so that I can boast about it or one-up people. I want to get to the end of my life and be able to look back and see that I did more than just pay bills on time and provide for my family. I want to be able to see that I did more than just float, just exist. And not just the end of my life; I want to be able to look back a year from now and be amazed at myself and Michelle and at what we’ve accomplished.
I can say this with certainty – I do not find life as boring or tedious as I did just a few months ago. The simple act of setting a goal and disciplining myself to train for a 5k to get in shape has already paid dividends in other, more important, areas of my life. And I believe this is only the beginning. My hope is that learning more about the process and nature of story, going deeper into my own story in the process, can help me figure out exactly what it is that I want in those other areas of my life – my ministry and my marriage in particular – and how best to pursue those goals.
I’m supposed to embed a video of Donald Miller talking about this contest, but for some reason I can’t get the video to embed properly. So instead, here is the link to the video on Vimeo.