Here are some people I admire: the apostle Paul, Thomas Aquinas, Francis Xavier, John Calvin, J. S. Bach, Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, Abraham Kuyper, Mary Slessor, Winston Churchill, C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, Wayne Gretzky, and Wynton Marsalis. It’s always pleasant to stand back and gaze upon their awesome excellence of talent, or spirit, or goodness, or whatever.
Here are some people, however, I envy: Martin Marty, Mark Noll, Nicholas Wolterstorff, David Martin, Miroslav Volf, Lauren Winner.
The difference in the two lists?
Well, there are two differences. First, the people in the second list are all contemporaries who do something similar to what I do for a living, namely, academic work in the humanities. (That’s why you may not recognize all, or even any, of the names. Philosophers, historians, sociologists, and theologians are rarely household words!) The second point is that they all have enjoyed much greater success at some aspect or another of our common profession.
Ouch. It hurts to admit it, but it hurts more to live under it. How can I possibly publish as much as Marty? Or read as much as Noll? Or think as deeply as Wolterstorff? Or think as widely as Martin? And so on, and so on.
I find relief from envy in several antidotes. One is friendship. While I envy these people, I also am glad to count them as friends. And if someone else is going to be considerably more successful than I, it’s easier to bear if it’s a worthy friend!
Another and better antidote to envy, however, is much more basic: vocation. If God had wanted me to be like Martin Marty, he would have made me like Martin Marty. But he clearly didn’t, because he clearly didn’t.
Same with Michael Jordan. Same with George Clooney. Same with anyone else you admire—or envy.
Instead, God wanted me to be like me, so he cleverly made me just like that.
And what is that?
The Bible, of course, is the Book of books by which to consider such matters. A very helpful contemporary book on the subject, however, is Marcus Buckingham’s Go Put Your Strengths to Work (New York: Free Press, 2007).
Buckingham worked for the Gallup Organization for years, analyzing executives and businesses to help them improve. Out of this wealth of experience he has concluded that the best way for any of us to make the most of our lives is not to “work on our weaknesses” and not to seek to become “well-rounded,” but instead to identify and capitalize on our particular strengths. This “strengths movement” is hot in some places now, and I think it deserves to be more widely known.
Buckingham’s counsel—available in this book, on his website, and via other media—coincides powerfully with the counsel of the apostle Paul, who told the early Christians under his care to recognize their inherent particularity, to rejoice in it, to honour each other’s differences, and to work together for mutual benefit. In fact, Paul provides for us an image so apt that it is surprising Buckingham never makes use of it: the parts of the human body working in all of their particularity for each other’s good: eye, ear, hand, foot, and so on (I Corinthians 12).
Life is short, distractions and demands are many, and we can misspend ‘way too much of our time and effort on matters that don’t matter, or in work to which we are neither inclined nor suited. Buckingham’s book is, like all wisdom, deceptively simple and clear, and I’ve found it to be effective. It has helped me move away from activities that I am not good at, or even some that I am, but don’t have much heart for, toward those through which I can do the most good for others and enjoy myself best while doing them.
Take some time to go through the book, maybe a chapter every Sunday afternoon, and see if it doesn’t help you make better sense of your life.
I can’t be Nicholas Wolterstorff or Miroslav Volf or Lauren Winner. But I’m not supposed to be, and I wouldn’t be happy or fulfilled if I tried to be. Nope. I’ll do better being whatever it is that I genuinely am.
Even if the envy I feel about my friends never quite dissipates . . . !