Several years ago, a friend of mine told me a story about an interaction he had with his father one night after playing in a high school basketball game.
In that game, my friend’s team was losing badly and he committed a lazy foul, scowled at the referee as if he hadn’t done anything, then saw his replacement checking in at the scorer’s table and sulked to the bench, head hanging and feet dragging. When my friend got off the court, he caused a small scene (witnessed by all in the gym), throwing his armband angrily under the bench, and rudely rejecting offers from teammates for water.
Afterward, on the drive home, my friend’s dad said to him simply, “Act like that again, and you won’t be playing for any team in any sport.”
The message came through to him loud and clear: playing basketball isn’t about playing basketball. Instead, it’s about learning virtue through an otherwise trivial activity—learning discipline, learning the value of being part of something greater than yourself, learning to adapt in the face of adversity, learning that everything doesn’t happen on your terms, among others.
My friend’s dad knew that basketball is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Basketball is a vessel by which its players ought to grow in maturity and excellence independent of the game itself, because, as the saying goes, “there’s more to life.”
Sports tend to serve as the best metaphors for this, but all that we do in life ought to be aimed toward an ultimate end, something greater than ourselves, and something that actually has worth in the grand scheme of things. Our lives deserve a purpose toward which we strive by making our every decision meaningful, calculated, and intentional. Every one of those choices should be “means” and not “ends,” but more and more frequently it seems that our culture has ditched the former and clung to the latter.
We’re becoming a people of many ends and no means, and that’s a bad thing.
Don’t believe me? Look at the year-round reporting of NFL coverage or “St. Jerry’s Basilica, sponsored by AT&T” where the Dallas Cowboys play. Look at the 24-hour news cycle and our search for the “if it bleeds, it leads” stories, or our obsession with the next presidential election when it’s not even the year of the election yet. Most of all, look at the throwaway culture we’re in of status-quo contraception, abortion-on-demand, porn addiction for boys and young men going through the roof, or rampant objectification of women wreaking havoc on society.
So many things today are done “just because.” Just because we “need” it at the time, just because it makes us happy in the moment, just because it feels good, just because it’s entertaining, just because it’s noise, and on and on.
It’s not that many of the “just because” things are necessarily bad things in themselves, it’s just that there’s more to life than “just because.” There’s more to life than “all about me.” Life is too important, too valuable to drift through selfishly.
The fact is, we aren’t here of our own accord, so it seems that we aren’t intended to exist to be a service to ourselves, but instead to those around us. Add in the fact that those around us, past and present, were also created, then consider that all we possess—life especially—is given to us by a God who loves us and desires the absolute best for us, and it’s easy to see that “just because” shouldn’t even exist in our vocabulary.
C.S. Lewis, in his book The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses, illustrates this perfectly:
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Being pleased by the things we do isn’t a bad thing, but it’s all too often the only thing we think about. It’s like the difference between a Big Mac with fries and Filet Mignon with mashed potatoes; both will please you, and both will fill you up, but there’s a richness and a value to the steak that Mickey D’s just can’t fulfill.
So ask yourself: Why am I doing the things I’m doing?
If the answer starts with “just because…,” we owe it to ourselves and to those around us is to rethink our choice.
Of course, life is hard. Anyone in any tax bracket will acknowledge that. But acknowledging that life has meaning is something much more uncommonly said, and acknowledging that the meaning of life ought to spur us to right action is more uncommon still.
So, the first step in living a life of means and not ends is to figure out why we’re here—why we have this life that we have.
The feeling that we all share deep down, that life has meaning, isn’t just a coincidence. Where does that feeling come from? Consider, for a moment, the case for the timeless, spaceless, immaterial, enormously powerful and personal God (in other words, the God of the Bible). If that God exists, then the fact is that he doesn’t need any of us humans. God is self-sustaining, and we, as creatures, cannot add anything to God or contribute to his growth in any way.
If you think about it, the fact that God doesn’t need us, coupled with the fact that we exist (when we don’t need to exist) means one thing: God wants us to exist.
God wants us to exist—Jesus wants us to exist—so that we can be “fully alive,” as St. Irenaeus said, by being in relationship with him, both here on earth and (eventually) in heaven. In fact, Jesus took on our same human flesh to show us how we can “have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10) through that relationship with God. We exist to “glorify God with our lives” to reach the Ultimate End of heaven, which is the spending of all eternity as one with our Creator.
The Ultimate End is everlasting joy, infinite happiness, the most joy-filled moment of our lives stretched out for all eternity. That’s what we were created for.
But why does that matter here?
Considering the nature of God, his wanting us, and infinite love of us, means that he created every single one of us with a unique purpose in mind that excludes no created thing. The best analogy of this comes from St. Paul as he speaks of us being parts of the Body of Christ:
But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy (1 Cor. 12:20-26).
Our lives having inherent purpose is the sole reason that each one of our decisions ought to be intentioned and never be done “just because.” No decision that helps us get to heaven is done without intention.
After recognizing the purpose of life, St. Therese of Lisieux captures this call beautifully, saying, “Let us go forward in peace, our eyes upon heaven, the only one goal of our labors.”
The hardest part about all this? Some of our “just because” decisions will need to be given up cold turkey. If we want to live fully intentional lives, and we desire in earnest to make it to heaven, some of the things we do in life have to be given up … forever. Whatever that is for each person, we’ve already been promised that it won’t be easy:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few (Matt. 7:13-14).
It will be worth it, though, and we can be comforted in knowing two things: 1) Everyone is called to heaven, the Ultimate End; and 2) there’s a map we can follow to get there.
That map is the way of the cross. More specifically, it’s the mastery of the will and the submission to God’s grace in order to accomplish it. St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church and great sixteenth-century saint, wasn’t always “saintly” in the way she lived her life, so this bit comes from her direct experience:
A great aid to going against your will is to bear in mind continually how all is vanity and how quickly everything comes to an end. This helps to remove our attachment from [trivial things] and center it on what will never end. Even though this practice seems to be a weak means, it will strengthen the soul greatly and the soul will be most careful in very little things.
Your life has value. Your life has a purpose. You were made for more than temper tantrums, mud pies, and Big Macs. Make your every action the means to the Ultimate End, and I promise you won’t regret it.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared April 9 on the author’s blog http://mtncatholic.com./ and is reprinted with permission.