I was on a run a while back, and I was listening to Bastille’s album Bad Blood. It’s not new at this point, but I really like their music. One of the reasons I like it is because they their songs bring up interesting spiritual questions, even if it they don’t provide any real answers.
As I was
running jogging (it’s funny what we call a “run” isn’t it?), I was listening to the song called “The Weight of Living Pt. 2.” Here’s a taste:
It all crept up on you, in the night it got you
And plagued your mind, it plagues your mind
Every day that passes, faster than the last did
And you’ll be old soon, you’ll be old
Do you like the person you’ve become?
Do you like the person you’ve become? That’s a loaded question. So loaded that many of us don’t want to think about the question at all. But it’s an important question nonetheless. Because when we stop to think about it, many of us don’t like the person we’ve become.
We have really good intentions to stop being short with our families, start reading our Bibles more, or stop making the same relational mistakes. But when we take stock of our lives next to those standards we’ve created, we often fall pretty short.
No one is harder on us than ourselves, of course. So the weight we feel from not living up to those standards is both created by and shoulder by ourselves. And what we think of ourselves has the potential to suffocate us emotionally and spiritually.
But I’m jumping ahead. Let’s first look at why and how we’re creating these standards in our lives.
All of us are trying to live up to something
We’re all trying to live up to some standard in life that we’ve either created for ourselves or that’s been created for us.
Much of that has to do with your family background or your cultural background. For instance, there are really two main value structures in our culture, two main ways we form our identity – the traditional and the Western.
If you’re in a traditional structure of identity formation then you draw your sense of self-worth from the community, or from your family. Your sense of value comes from what you contribute to that community and what your place is in it. This is more prevalent in other countries, but many families here in the US still have a strong sense of this.
If you’re in a Western structure of identity formation, then you draw your sense of self-worth from your individuality. You’re not concerned with the needs of the community as much as you are with your own needs. Your sense of self-worth is tied to what job you can get, what kind of life you can make, and what’s best for you. This is obviously the more predominant structure for identity formation in our context.
I should point out that neither is better or worse than the other; this is simply a picture of how the two structures work. It’s important to know because it helps us understand what we’re trying to live up to and why we’re trying to do it.
For instance, a person in a traditional setting is trying not to bring shame to their family or their community. How do you do that? Well, by carrying out your assigned role and accepting your place within that community. So the temptation in those settings is to try and live up to others’ expectations for your life.
“Others” might include your parents, your family, your friends, etc. Religion can fit into this category as well. They all have expectations for you and your life and what your place should be in the world, and in many cases there is honor and respect on the line so it’s a serious thing. The standards you’re trying to live up to have been created for you. In the traditional setting, you’re trying to become the person other people want you to be.
Now, in contrast, a person in a Western setting tries to live up to different standards. Some of the standards still have to do with other people’s perceptions, but the root of the standard lies in what you think about your performance, your relationships, your wealth, or any number of things.
The tendency here is to set up some standard for yourself – maybe it’s a certain job, a house on the lake, a particular relationship, or status – and then make that how you judge your value and self-worth. Then there are the standards that come from a society that tells us to look a certain way, behave a certain way, and live a certain way. In the Western setting, then, you’re trying to be the person you think will make you happy.
So regardless of how your identity has been formed, none of us is really free, as much as we like to think so. We’re all bound to something, we’re all trying to live up to something. Don’t you feel that in your own life?
The weight of living is crushing
If all of us are trying to live up to something, then sooner or later the weight will be crushing.
And there is a weight to life itself, isn’t there? All of us carry some kind of standard around that we’re trying to live up to, and each one of them is just another burden weighing us down. Many of those standards we’ve talked about are necessarily bad things, but when you make them your source of self-worth and value then you will always be crushed beneath the weight of them.
A guy that had been a struggling writer wrote about this once in The New York Times. His name was Benjamin Nugent, and he was reflecting on the maddening season in his life where he couldn’t write anything halfway decent, and he always had a sense of malaise about his life and his work. He said:
“When good writing was my only goal, I made the quality of my work the measure of my worth. For this reason, I wasn’t able to read my own writing well. I couldn’t tell whether something I had just written was good or bad, because I needed it to be good in order to feel sane.”
For anyone that’s ever made their work everything, you know exactly what he’s talking about. He made the quality of his work the measure of his worth. If he wasn’t a good writer, he wasn’t a good person, and he couldn’t be happy. But of course that kind of thinking makes you so neurotic that you never think you’re a good writer, so you’ll never be happy. The weight of living was crushing him.
Are you making the quality of your work the measure of your worth? It’s worth considering.
Maybe you’re not making your work the measure of your worth, but there’s something else. Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright refers to these things that we’re making the measure of our worth as “life-lies.” These things we tell ourselves that if we can just get them then we’ll be happy. If I can just get that car, just get married, just get that house, then I’ll be happy.
Listen to what Ibsen says about this:
“Take the life-lie away from the average man and you take away his happiness.”
Every one of our life-lies can and will be taken from us at some point. And when that happens we will be crushed under the weight of it. All the self-worth, all the value we assigned to ourselves because of those life-lies will disappear in an instant.
If all of us are under the weight of living and will eventually be crushed under it, then what can we do? If you don’t like the person you’ve become, what can you do about it?
Jesus can bear the weight and show us how to be the person we were made to be
Let’s see what Jesus said about this. And I think you’ll find it an interesting way of dealing with it. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says these words:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The first thing to understand in this text is the word “yoke.” A yoke was basically a harness that connected some kind of animal, like a donkey or an ox, to a tool of some kind. It might have been a till or a wagon-type apparatus that was used to transport something.
Regardless of what an animal was yoked to, it was a burden to them. People weren’t fastening animals to something that they could do themselves; it was something too heavy or straining for them to do alone.
Jesus is using that imagery to talk about the burdens and standards we’re trying to live up to that we discussed earlier. He’s saying, “I know you’re tired of trying to live up. I know you’re weary from the weight of living. Come to me, and I’ll show you how to take a real rest.”
He’s pointing out again that we’re all burdened by something, the weight of living is on us all. We’re all yoked to something.
But what he doesn’t say about burdens is that we don’t have to have any. Did you notice that? Jesus didn’t promise for us not to be yoked to anything – he promised to give us rest, relief, from the weight of living, if we yoke ourselves to him instead.
We’re always going to be yoked to something, after all, so Jesus is telling us to yoke ourselves to him so we can learn from him. So we can see how to live our lives unburdened by the expectations and standards of others.
Those things aren’t going away, of course. So what’s going on here? Jesus is offering us a way out of making those things our sense of self-worth and our sense of value.
He’s saying, “If you don’t like the person you’ve become, maybe it’s because you’ve got yourself yoked to the wrong thing. You’re trying to become the wrong person. Yoke yourself to me, watch me, learn from me, and I’ll show you how to find rest and be the person I created you to be.”
Jesus alone can bear the weight of our standards. He alone can give you a meaning outside yourself, outside of others.
*Note: I’m indebted to Tim Keller for much of the thought and structure behind this post.