Trapped by the Search for Significance
By shirin taber
February 25, 2010
I have an insatiable need to feel extraordinary, to be a woman of influence and to leave a mark on the world. Some might say it’s because I grew up as a “third-culture kid,” a global nomad. By that, I mean I’m a blend of two cultures—the daughter of an American mother and an Iranian father. My family traveled the world with my father’s international airline career. I spent time in cities like Rome, Frankfurt, London, Tehran and New York and attended a bilingual, private British school before the age of 10. It’s in my blood—I’m desperate for significance.
Many of my peers—girlfriends, college students and young professionals I have worked among—are feeling the growing itch for significance too. They want to know they matter and that their life has a purpose. They want to help change the world for good, not just watch from the sidelines. I hear it in the way we talk about our dreams and vocational aspirations: “I want to open a shelter for poor and disenfranchised women.” “I want to make movies like Steven Spielberg.” “I want to be a neurosurgeon.” We believe our God-given destiny is where our greatest happiness lies.
Gone are the days when 18-year-olds went off to college to find a spouse, had two or three kids and settled for a predictable life in suburbia. We want to feel like individuals, unique and set apart. Many of us embody a mixture of bohemian and bourgeois ideals, seeking to find our distinguished space in the universe. We like to try new things, and we wouldn’t think twice about moving across the country to do medical research, pursue the big screen, go into politics, help with relief work or teach inner-city kids.
What Drives Us
Perhaps our obsession with celebrities and powerful people also compels us toward celebrity status. After learning our ABCs on Sesame Street, we’re saturated every waking moment by success stories and the lifestyles of the rich and famous. We want to be stars too. We’re a generation desperate for significance. Good or bad, it propels us forward, making us breathless for influence, as we desire to have our voices heard.
When I was a college student, only a handful of students ventured out, despite their parents’ fears, to spend an entire year overseas. Today students are leaving the comforts of home to help change the world en masse. Brave men and women are going off to fight the war in Iraq, heading to Siberia as missionaries, backpacking their way through India as relief workers and teaching English in China. And girls, in particular, are going where they’ve never gone before. And why wouldn’t we? We were bred to believe we can do anything, go anywhere—even if it might cost us our lives. Gender no longer holds us back. But is there a dark side to our drive, our need to achieve, shine and even outdo others?
My hunger for significance is rooted in a desperate need to feel valued as a young woman from a broken home with a nominal religious upbringing. Perhaps you’ve felt like you’ve been there, too. Based on my work among college students and young professionals, I will venture to say that the drive for significance in many young women today is rooted in the desperation to feel known and to know that our lives count. We’re not just significance addicts, after all. We’re hoping that if we can keep up with the big boys, then we will be truly worthwhile and interesting.
On another level, my obsession with success is a cry for attention, security and, ultimately, the need for spiritual healing. I need my heavenly Father to show me that I matter to Him. The broken and missing parts still need to be restored. I long for affirmation and validation. When parents don’t tell their children that they love them, they will look for other relationships and experiences to speak to their aching hearts. The significance-shaped vacuum seeks the comfort of the world’s applause.
One of the negative byproducts of living in an affluent society is that I’ll never completely feel significant. Someone will always seem smarter, richer or more beautiful. The media constantly bombards me with the message that I don’t measure up. I always need some new gadget, beauty product or degree to make me feel good about myself. I’m up when I feel skinny like a fashion model, but down when my home doesn’t look like the cover of a Pottery Barn catalog. Up, down. Down, up. My significance barometer can be as erratic as a pogo stick.
Something’s Got to Give
There comes a time in many of our lives—whether we’re single or married with children, 23 or 43—when we instinctively know we’re destined for something great, and when the turning point comes, we seize it with a vengeance.
The dark side of a need for significance is the anxiety and desperation it can suddenly bring to our lives when things don’t turn out as we expect. We can drive ourselves and everyone around us crazy when we fixate furiously on “our plans and goals.” If you’re like me, you want to see results right away. You want instant gratification, and you want everyone to love your ideas, to open doors for you and to treat you like royalty. Sound familiar?
Studies show our generation is prone to perfectionism. Anxiety begins to rear its ugly head in our lives when “we can’t have it all.” We lose our joy when we find that we can’t manage everything—timelines to fulfill, limited finances, baby-sitting needs, a crazy job, homework, kids to take care of and dinner to have ready by 6 p.m.
I’m learning that when I’m faced with the reality that I may not see my dreams fulfilled, or when I feel attacked or disregarded by others who “just don’t get” what I am after, I need to take my feelings to God. Philippians 4:6 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (TNIV).
As I grow in my relationship with God and sense His enduring commitment to me, I see that His plans for me are greater than anything I could have imagined. God hears my cry for significance and whispers, “I put those longings in your heart because I have plans for you. I gave you that voracious hunger for greatness and beauty and purpose because I’m calling you to serve Me and reveal My purpose.” He is a generous and willing Father who tells His children, “Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalm 2:8). He tells me that I’m part of His family, “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Peter 2:9). As I step out in faith and take hold of the opportunities He gives me, I can trust that He will enable me to leave a lasting influence.
Shirin Taber is the author of Wanting All the Right Things (RELEVANT Books). This article originally appeared in Radiant.