Those who fear death spend their lives in a futile quest for security, for something they can attach themselves to that will not die. — Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
The same behavior can take a different tone depending on what motivates us to do it. When our actions are motivated by fear, our work and life can begin to feel futile and meaningless.
This fear of death is in part what motivates people to leave a legacy — a body of work, a lasting contribution, notoriety. We believe that the bigger our contribution and the more we can do in this lifetime, the greater will be our ability to remain relevant after death.
There are (at least) three patterns that we fall into in our efforts to attain security and control over our future and our legacy. On the surface, these don’t appear to be rooted in fear.
And they may not be. The only way to know is to check in with yourself and be honest with yourself.
(1) Pursuit of Material Wealth
Driven by the desire for security, stability, and freedom, we work endlessly to amass more money and accumulate more stuff. Security becomes about what we have, what we own, and what we can control.
Some people believe that it’s not consistent with “spirituality” to earn money. They develop beliefs that “sales” is a bad thing, or they undercharge for their services. I want to be clear that this is not what I’m saying here, and in fact those beliefs are harmful. There is nothing inherently wrong with material wealth. On a practical level, we need money to survive. Having material wealth also allows us to give to others who are in need. And it’s a sign of respect for our work to charge for it.
The problem is in the belief that security and freedom can be found in material wealth and possessions.
Material wealth rarely leads to security; in fact, it often leads to anxiety: the fear of losing what you have, what you own, and what you control. People who believe security comes from amassing material wealth become motivated to protect their possessions. They play defense in life, rather than offense. They stop taking risks, or become reluctant to make changes that would require them to give up what they have.
The pursuit of money or material possessions as ends sends us down the path of “never enough.” It raises the inevitable question:
How much is enough when nothing lasts forever?
Not coincidentally, when you release your grip on the money and possessions, more material wealth flows to you.
(2) Pursuit of a Lasting Body of Work
The adage that we can live forever by creating work that lasts forever is based in the illusion that you can control how others receive your work and what your legacy will be.
Here’s a hard truth: you don’t control either.
Let’s take a simple example of writing a book.
Some people believe that writing a book will earn them recognition and a measure of fame that will outlive them. They create a strategy to get on the best-seller list, so that more people can read the book. They believe that the more people who buy the book, the bigger their impact will be.
We don’t have the privilege in this lifetime of seeing the long view. That book may be on the best-seller list today, but will people be reading it in 50 years?
If your motivation is based on how others receive your work, your efforts begin to feel futile the moment your work doesn’t land the way you intended.
Others write a book because they must. It comes through them in a way that they feel no choice but to write it. Their primary motivation isn’t strategic; it isn’t to build a legacy or create something that will last. They are driven by the need to share some piece of their knowledge or experience.
They bring joy to their process because it is coming through them. That’s not to say that it’s an easy process; joy doesn’t require a specific set of external circumstances. This joy creates meaning in the process, regardless of the result.
Whether you’re a writer, an artist, a musician, an athlete, or whatever you do, if your motivation is rooted in how others will receive your work you set yourself up for feelings of futility and loss of meaning when the work doesn’t land. The truth is that you don’t know how your work will stand the test of time because all you can see is a finite time horizon.
Birthing the work that comes through you isn’t necessarily easier, but we can find joy in it, and that joy creates the meaning, regardless of the impact the work has.
(3) Dedicating Yourself to Service of Others
This one is especially tricky if you’re a giver. Let me be clear that my personal belief is that service to others is why we are here. At least, it’s why I am here.
If you’re wired to serve, this is the place in which you are most likely to find meaning.
Serving others is a beautiful thing.
Where it can devolve to meaninglessness is when our motivations are not fully aligned with service. This includes:
- when we become invested in how others receive our service, how they appreciate our service, or the results they receive;
- when we use service as a way to escape our loneliness or as a means of filling a hole in ourselves;
- when we serve as a means of achieving significance, fame, or money;
In all of these cases, we are using service as a means to an end.
True service is service of the heart. It is not motivated by money or reward or what results you can help others achieve. The
joy of serving in itself. This is often difficult to explain to people who aren’t motivated to serve.
When your motivation to serve is truly the joy of service, that creates meaning.
Not coincidentally, when you show up in this way you have a bigger impact on the people you serve and put yourself in a position to earn more money and create legacy.
The only way to know whether you’re motivated by fear is to check in with yourself and be honest.