The Length of a String

Wrong Question

Through my years as an accounting and finance professional, I have learned there is one question that I should resist the urge to ask before hearing the whole idea. 

That said, sometimes I cannot help myself: “How much is this going to cost?”

Fortunately, I work with a good friend and colleague who is always waiting with a clever response:

“How long is a string?”

After I finish rolling my eyes, I realize that my question is too broad.  It is like asking how much a car costs. I sold a car in university for $400.  I also know a Tesla costs a lot more than that.  Without the parameters to focus the question, the answers will be varied and lack value. 

In life, having perspective of where we are in each moment is critical.  Without this understanding, we may look up one day and find ourselves somewhere completely different than expected.  If we become so focused on each individual step and forget to look at a map, it may turn out that we missed seven turns and have no idea how to get home.

An Unending Game

I recently read Simon Sinek’s book, The Infinite Game.  It discusses the way we look at life, using business examples.  Sinek’s thesis is that many of the ‘games’ we play in life are infinite and are therefore impossible to win in the conventional sense.  Because of this, a different mindset is important. 

He uses sports as an example of a finite game.  In a football game, there are clear rules, understood by both teams, a set beginning and ending, with a clear goal – to score the most points.  Everyone playing and watching understands that when the clock runs out of time, the team with the most points will be the winner. 

Corporate life is often approached as if it were a finite game.  I have worked in organizations where the quarter becomes the goal post and our earnings for a 90-day period become the measurement by which we view success.  We compare ourselves to our competition using arbitrary metrics and time frames, often the ones that make us look the best. The only problem is that there is always another quarter and the game does not end, therefore trying to ‘win’ becomes a futile effort.

In contrast, Sinek uses example of companies that focus on a vision. These businesses measure performance in the long-term progression towards that vision.  There are few examples of big companies that operate in this manner.  When you have analysts’ expectations to meet, short term earnings are often prioritized ahead of long-term vision.

It is easy to look at corporations in the context of a book and see how short-sighted this approach may be.  It is harder to look at my own life and acknowledge that I often choose the same thing.

The Infinite String

I was sitting having lunch with a man that I had recently met.  After rediscovering my faith, I was eager to talk with other people who had chosen this newfound path.  After sharing some of my story and what I was experiencing, this man shared an analogy with me. 

Asking me to imagine a string that extended infinitely in both directions across the table, he pointed at a single spot on it and said, this is your life.  In discovering a personal relationship with God, I was now living with a Kingdom mindset.  This means that my speck on the imaginary string is connected to a much bigger story.  A story that never ends.

This is an overwhelming thought.  It tempts me to conclude that my life is small and insignificant.  A mere drop in the ocean of eternity.  

But I have come to understand the opposite is true – viewing my life in the context of a wider story gives me hope.  With an infinite view of God’s Kingdom, the troubles of today are temporary.  The biggest battle has already been won.  Jesus tells His disciples, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (Jn 16:33)

Believing in God does not mean that problems go away or become easier to deal with.  Faith is the juxtaposition of experiencing suffering and remaining hopeful in it.  That no matter what the circumstances, the battle has already been won.  Belief in the ultimate victory is a source of strength to carry us through the hardest times.

Ripple Effects

Our lives are short in comparison to the time that humans have been on Earth.  But each of us has an opportunity to leave a mark that will last far beyond our lifetimes. 

At the beginning of the movie Gladiator, Maximus, then a general in the Roman army, is giving a speech to his troops before a battle.  In a well-known line, he says “What we do in life, echoes in eternity.”

Reflecting on this line, it might be easy to dismiss its relevance to our daily experiences.  And even if we did think it was applicable to our lives, it is tempting to think of the big, epic things that famous people do as the sorts of things that ‘echo’ beyond our lifetimes.

It is tempting, but it is wrong.  Even the smallest acts can have a profound impact in the bigger story.

We are all here because of echoes from the past.  Choices made by our ancestors ultimately result in us being here today.  The events of our lives up to this point have shaped us in both small and dramatic ways.  These events are largely beyond our control, and yet they have an impact on us.

But what about our actions?  We do not choose the ways our lives unfold, at least not the things external to us.  We can choose how we react to them and in doing so set off our own ripple effects. 

Viewing life with a Kingdom mindset means I may never see the ripple effect of my actions.  They may have an impact far beyond what I ever see or know.  Still, we can rest assured that they do have an impact.

A light example: Driving with my son recently, we see a man from the neighbourhood.  He is walking with a bouquet of flowers.  Noticing this, I wait a few minutes and then say to my son, “do you think we should get Mommy some flowers?”. 

He replies, “Are you asking because you saw that other man with the flowers?”

I laugh. “Yes.” 

“It’s still a good idea,” he said.  It was a good idea, and one I likely would not have otherwise thought of on the way to the eye doctor with my son.  On the way home, we bought flowers for my wife and my daughters, which allowed us to show a small gesture of gratitude for their presence in our lives. 

They were received with joy, setting off a little joy-bomb in our family.  It is possible it changed the course of the day.  We will never know, but we did get to share a special moment, one that I hope will add to the fabric of our family. 

In this story, there is a small, yet critical detail that is worth circling back on.  The man from the neighbourhood.  Without him, none of the rest of it happens.  Yet he has no idea who we are and how the decision he made that morning had an impact on my family.  Maybe I was not the only one who saw this and decided to buy flowers or to do something purposeful for my wife and family. 

Perhaps someone saw my son and me at the store buying the flowers and thought to do the same.  Who knows what the downstream impact of those decisions are?  The possibilities are endless.  Because a man who lives in our neighbourhood decided to walk to buy flowers.

If a small and simple gesture can have such an impact, what about the big gestures, or the accumulation of all the simple and small acts?  What we do can echo in eternity.

Living for the Long Run

Returning to the core theme of The Cedar Life, having a Kingdom mindset focused on the big story can dramatically affect how we live our lives each day.  Life can be hard.  Personal struggles or events with global reach can sweep us away in the noise.  What is most proximate to us can loom large. 

Viewing the finite years of our lives in the context of a story that does not end provides us with perspective.  We know the difficult times will pass.  True faith provides us with hope even in death.  So, while we experience the full range of emotions and experiences that our finite lives offer, we can do so in hope that something even greater lies ahead.  The Kingdom mindset is the infinite mindset.

This realization puts into perspective the importance of living each day well.  Though we may live some days better than others, we can always seek guidance from the Father.  He has a plan for each of our lives – the echoes of which will sound long after our time on Earth is complete.

– Sean

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Ocean Photo by green impact on Unsplash

Flower Photo by Andrew Small on Unsplash

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