In January, Anne Helen Peterson called out a disturbing cultural trend in her viral Buzzfeed article “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” Peterson explained, “In a marked shift from the generations before, millennials needed to optimize ourselves to be the very best workers possible.” She pointed out many harmful psychological effects of attempting to find fulfillment in a job and shaming ourselves when we are not being productive.
As I read the article, I found myself nodding in agreement to many of her statements. Afterward, I felt discouraged. How can we uphold the dignity of the human person when in popular culture we are reduced, as Peterson points out, to “a product”?
A Christian Response to Millennial Burnout
I took this question to prayer, and the Lord responded with an overwhelmingly simple solution: Love. Although our culture tells us we must to work hard to validate our dignity, in fact we have already been dignified by God’s love for us. By giving and receiving God’s love, we can see ourselves for who we really are: God’s beloved creations. Instead of striving for important accomplishments, let’s infuse every action with love. Instead of seeking validation for our talents and abilities, let’s seek affirmation from the One who loves us no matter what.
In a culture that values extreme efficiency and major accomplishments, I often feel insignificant. I can certainly relate to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who wrote in her autobiography, “I am a very little soul who can offer only very little things to God.”
But a few pages later, she added, “Jesus does not demand great deeds.” What matters to Jesus is the love in our hearts.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta instructed her sisters to “Do small things with great love.”
Scripture affirms that love gives meaning to our time—not the quantity or greatness of our actions. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all the mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13:1-3).
Giving Love is a Choice
Now, this doesn’t mean that we have to feel happy and excited about every kind act. Sometimes, choosing someone else’s needs and desires over our own can be unpleasant. But love makes all the difference. Notice how new parents cradle their babies. Even a sleep-deprived, frustrated mother holds her child with tenderness and protection.
Recently, my dad described a nursing home resident hooked up to a lot of medical equipment who spends her days lying in bed. Whenever my dad visits, she re-gifts him a card or small object from her room. By society’s standards, that may not be much. But to my dad, those gestures of kindness have a big impact.
God can use all of our actions, no matter how insignificant in the eyes of the world, to spread His love.God can use all of our actions, no matter how insignificant in the eyes of the world, to spread His love. #BISblog // Click To Tweet
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Receiving love is harder for me. Sure, God loves me unconditionally, but it’s difficult for me to accept His love because haven’t met my own requirements. Peterson has me pinned: I feel that I’m not talented or important enough, and I constantly try to improve myself so I can do more. If I don’t meet my goals, I consider myself unworthy of love. I feel that my weaknesses decrease my dignity. And I have a great many weaknesses. So I get stuck.
To understand my self-worth, I turn to folks with developmental disabilities as my role models, especially those with Down syndrome. While every person is different, overall I find that my friends and patients with developmental disabilities demonstrate an innate understanding of their value. They don’t seem to compare themselves to their typically-abled peers. They’re much more concerned with having fun than achieving important goals. They seem confident that their wants and needs are important and they receive love unconditionally. I want to be like that.
Thérèse of Lisieux wrote, “Nowadays I’m resigned to seeing myself in a permanent state of imperfection and I even delight in it.” Delight in our imperfections? This goes against everything popular culture teaches. But Thérèse is right. If we open our hearts to God’s love, we can transcend the expectations of the utilitarian world by allowing ourselves to be imperfect. God cherishes all of us, regardless of our abilities—a surgeon saving lives is as important as a patient whose only job is to receive medical care. God doesn’t require us to be talented, productive, or even hardworking to receive His love.
Mother Teresa said, “It is only when we realize our nothingness, our emptiness, that God can fill us with himself.” And the Lord says to us in Scripture, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9).
It turns out dignity isn’t something we can earn by meeting certain criteria. We are already dignified even with our flaws and shortcomings, because God loves us unconditionally.
I applaud Anne Helen Peterson for pointing out the destructive consequences of the culture of optimization. Now I encourage her—and all of us—to push back. Life isn’t about productivity. Life is, ultimately, about love. By giving and receiving God’s love, we can overcome cultural pressures to work hard to prove ourselves.
Let’s be intentional in our small moments, and let’s claim our identities as God’s lovely creatures. Our dignity doesn’t come from being the most efficient workers. Our dignity comes from God’s love.
Will we change the world by changing our attitude? Maybe not. But that’s not the point. Jesus just wants us to open our hearts to give and receive His love.A Christian Response to Millennial Burnout #BISblog // Click To Tweet