Having It All Isn't Enough
- Dr. Gary Smalley The Smalley Relationship Center
- 2007 8 Aug
The famous actor opened the door and invited me into his New York City penthouse. In his living room, whose windows took in the city skyline, was a fireplace, and on the mantel of that fireplace was a statuette, the only memento of his illustrious Hollywood film career.
Having never seen an Oscar up close, I spent a moment reading the nameplate. This actor had won Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Award presentations a year earlier. "I've spent all my life working for that," my host said. "I really believed that if I won this award, it would give my life meaning. It would tell the world that I am somebody. And, I'd finally be happy."
The actor paused for a moment, a catch in his throat. I waited. Finally, he asked the question that had prompted him to call and ask me to fly two thousand miles to meet with him. "So, Gary, why am I feeling so miserable?"
This lonely man, who'd only recently suffered through his third divorce, voiced the lament of our culture. How is it possible to be so successful, and at the same time so unhappy? Why does it seem that the more someone has—things that most people aspire to have, such as fame, huge financial resources and the things they buy, a gorgeous spouse—the less happy that person often is?
First of all, that kind of sadness is not unique to the rich and famous. Almost everyone in our culture is affected by the same problem—in fact, those who don't have wealth and success are often just as miserable chasing after the elusive American dream. They simply can't believe that possessing those things won't make them happy.
I had to reach bottom to discover the secret of fulfillment. My failure at work had produced in me a severe depression that lingered for several weeks. Norma tried to understand why I was depressed, but it didn't make sense to her. However, my problems were causing a crisis in her life, and the answers she found had a profound impact on me.
Never underestimate the power of a woman who has yielded her life to God. She not only has strength, but a special, radiating beauty. Norma had that glow during our courtship and when we were first married. After several years of marriage, however, her power and beauty had started to fade, and she blamed me for her lack of fulfillment.
When we'd moved to Chicago so I could work with Bill Gothard, we had left a wonderfully supportive church. In Chicago, we never found the right church for our family, and as a result, Norma began to feel more and more isolated. Furthermore, she felt lonely because I was gone so often and rarely available for meaningful conversation. She did have the children; ever since she was a little girl Norma had wanted to have many children, and being a mother was very fulfilling for her. But with three preschool youngsters, she needed the support of a loving husband.
I wasn't aware of it at the time, but my insensitivity to our family caused a serious crisis in my wife's life. For a year after Michael's birth, Norma prayed about the imbalance in my life. At one time, early in our marriage, she would have tried nagging or shouting to get my attention. But those strategies rarely had much effect. Now, with her expectations about our marriage and family shattered, she began spending more time with God.
The more she went to God with her needs, the more Norma realized that God wanted to have a special friendship with her; he was fully capable of meeting her needs—and that included trusting him to work in my life too. She thought about the example of Sarah, the wife of Abraham. Sarah was so distraught over not bearing a child that she took matters into her own hands and made things worse. Norma realized that she needed to speak to me about my imbalanced life, but to do so in such a way that God was free to work things out in his way. And even if I didn't change, she began believing that God still was faithful to meet her legitimate needs.
As Norma began to experience a greater intimacy with God, a feeling of calm and peace entered her life. It didn't change her situation; I was still out of balance. My wife truly believed that this problem had to be confronted. But how? As she prayed, she realized she had to face me and courageously tell me the truth of her situation. When she finally did so, she spoke calmly, without histrionics. The strength of her spirit made a major impact on me—enough to cause me to go to Bill to ask about changing my job.
Norma's example also forced me to begin searching for answers. For several months during my crisis at work, I frequently woke up at three or four o'clock in the morning with my stomach churning like a stormy sea. I desperately wanted to understand why I was experiencing such misery. If the Christian life that I believed in and spoke about was true, why was I so unhappy? Why couldn't I rise above this disappointment and move on with my life?
One morning I awoke at four o'clock with the familiar pangs of anxiety engulfing me. To keep from disturbing Norma, I quietly slipped out of bed and tiptoed down the hall. My six-year-old son heard me. "What are you doing, Dad?" Greg whispered.
"I'm going downstairs to study," I told him.
"Can I go with you?"
After pouring Greg a cup of juice I sat down with him at the kitchen table and admitted to him that I was going through a struggle and couldn't seem to find the answer. He listened and tried to understand. "Greg, there has to be a reason why I keep getting my feelings so hurt. Do you remember the time we went fishing and you lost that big trout? You cried and I had to hold you for a long time?" Greg nodded. "That's a little like how I've felt for the past few weeks. I feel like I had a trophy fish right at the edge of the boat—but it got away. I feel such a deep sense of loss that I can't feel joy anymore."
Greg didn't fully understand, to be sure, but talking to him helped me crystallize my thoughts. Perhaps if I could explain to a six-year-old boy what I was feeling, I could go on to understand it myself. "Greg, I think I've been making the same mistake over and over. Maybe that's why I'm so miserable." I looked at his nearly empty cup of juice and suddenly had an idea. "It's like my life is a cup, and until recently it was filled with joy and peace and love. But lately a big hole has been drilled in it and all the life has drained out. Instead of joy filling my cup, anger and fear and hurt feelings have taken its place."
"But what made that hole?" Greg asked.
As I talked, I realized I had been expecting my relationship with Bill to keep my cup filled. I grabbed a notepad and drew a picture. "I think it's becoming clearer to me! Greg, tell me if this makes sense."
I drew as I talked. "As I think about it, Greg, I'm not looking for life just in a relationship; actually I'm looking for life in at least three different places. And fulfillment from these three places floods into my life through a network of hoses and faucets. The problem is, someone has turned off the spigot!" I showed Greg the picture, and he said he understood.
That early-morning conversation with Greg changed my life. For the first time I began to understand why my emotional and spiritual life had been like a small sailboat on a large lake. On nice days with gentle breezes I would skim across life's surface, refreshed by the wind and invigorated by the spray. But when the storm clouds came (and they always do), I had no safe harbor to sail to and no anchor strong enough to help me ride out the storm.
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