I recently met a beautiful man who achieved great success and ruined his life in New York City.
He was working in finance with some of the richest power brokers in the American system. His performance was great, and he was promoted.
He quickly found himself working 110-hour weeks. His “team” was locked in vicious competition: the top performer got a 120% bonus on their annual salary; the fifth-place performer was simply fired. Unsurprisingly, the competition became so ferocious that colleagues — people that hung out with each other and considered each other as friends — would sometimes sabotage each other’s work to get an advantage and come out on top, or at least avoid being fired.
To sustain this level of performance, he started using drugs — what he called “synthetic performance.” All of his teammates did as well. Going to bed became the most stressful moment of his day: he only had a 4-hour window to sleep, and if he missed that, he would drag at work. He found that his laptop was covered in sweat at the end of the day, because anxiety drove his performance.
Soon enough, his partner broke up with him, because he didn’t have the time or energy to be with her. And soon enough, he himself broke down, and he had to move away to recover. Interestingly, he told me that his mind was ready to keep pounding forward, but his body simply couldn’t do it.
As I listened to this beautiful man’s story, something stood out to me so clearly like a blinking red light.
He was literally killing himself to be extraordinary — 110-hour work weeks, no sleep, drug addiction, broken relationships. And yet his goal was so entirely ordinary: to feel valuable and important. He told me this explicitly: he wanted to feel like his life mattered and that he measured up to others.
Underneath the money and massive deals, the ultra-elite connections, the suicidal work performance and sabotaging friendships was that very basic human desire to be loved and accepted.
For me, this is one of the greatest paradoxes of our lives: some of us nearly kill ourselves to try to convince ourselves that our lives have value. But this doesn’t and can’t work: it is comparative, competitive, and cutthroat. We cannot experience love in this spirit.
The other side of the paradox is this: the thing we most urgently crave — to experience love — can only be given as a free gift. It doesn’t come from proving ourselves, being better than others, and rising to the top of anything. It can only come from opening and sharing ourselves in all that makes us human, especially our vulnerability, our fear that we’re not important, and our need to be loved.
So many of our titanic ambitions — the trophies that tower up for the world to see — have this same essential core hidden in the shadow: we want to feel valuable and experience love. Behind so many of the most impressive, wealthy, brilliant, powerful achievements is that little kid desperate to hear, “I love you. You matter to me.” And we ruin ourselves and ruin others to try to possess this for ourselves, only to discover that we have ruined love as well.
This is endlessly profound to me: Jesus begins his career by hearing these words from God: “Jesus, you’re my beloved child; I delight in you.” That’s where Jesus starts — before he’s said or done anything that could earn love. And thus Jesus resisted becoming an egomaniac or inflicting harm on others to save the world. Instead, he was present, a grounded in peace, and a source of healing for others, even in the most painful moments of his life when we would expect anger, rage, and violence to burst out of him.
Four questions come to my mind:
First, what if we started here: “I’m God’s beloved child; God delights in me”? By starting, I really mean stopping and soaking here, every day, with patience and courage.
Second, what if we could honestly embrace that this is what we’re all seeking and need? This desire for love is our shared secret, whether we know it or not, admit it or not.
Third, what if we could share this love with one another as our most basic way of life? This can be done through words, time, attention, service, gifts — endless ways.
And, fourth, what if we could face and surrender those pathological engines of comparison, competition, and coming out on top that only lead to loneliness, humiliation, and death? What if part of our life’s work is letting this go — and being brutally honest when we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking we’ve achieved this and are now fully recovered, clean, and unaddicted to comparison?
I believe this spiritual liberation is what the love of God offers us. And the irony is that it’s completely free and available for all of us, including the lonely but shimmering winners who have gained the whole world but lost their soul like my friend. (Thankfully, he’s deep into his process of healing and new beginning.)
Is your need to be loved driving you to harm yourself and others, perhaps including the people who actually love you?
Come home to the love of God. Your Creator says, “You’re my beloved child; I delight in you.” Receive this love and shamelessly share it with others.
There’s no better time than Christmas, this sacred moment when God comes low and embraces our vulnerability simply to be with us, because God loves us.
This is our path to a shared flourishing.