We need to uncover what motivates our behavior. Yet, we hear many voices. I want to mention just a few.
From a biological perspective, what drives us is the need for individual genes to reproduce themselves. At least, that is what Richard Dawkins tells us in The Selfish Gene (1976). Yet, genes must also cooperate with other genes in order to reproduce, in that they must survive in the same chromosome and cooperate for the survival of this unique body. We have a drive to preserve ourselves, while at the same time recognize that our survival depends upon our ability to cooperate with other people. We have a drive to select sexual partners that will provide a good home for our genes in the lives of children. Women have a drive toward males who invest in the care of their children. Males will have a drive to spread their genes as widely as possible. Since these two drives conflict, deception often occurs, and consequently people develop caution in order to detect the genuine from the deceptive. We have a drive to assist family for the same reason. The closeness of feeling within family is a result of this biological drive. We have a drive to relate to others in our social world in a manner that assumes social status and rank. We have a biological drive to find our place in a social group and, if possible, move up in social status. Of course, the content of what a culture considers status differs from one culture to another, but the existence of status seems to be biologically driven. Some scientists suggest that genes drive us in deceiving others, detecting the deception of others, extending forgiveness, being nice to others, all under the rubric of the drive toward reciprocal altruism.
From the perspective of psychology, that which drives us arises out of early childhood experiences. It controls, directs, and guides our thinking and behavior. Although we modify this drive in adolescent and adult life, we fall back to this drive when we are under stress or pressure.
Whether in biology or psychology, we can miss the outward focus of the development of our identity. The drives we have do not determine who we shall be. Rather, the complex web of relations will shape us.
The need to be in control drives some people. Such people focus upon who has power, who does not have power, and how they can acquire more power over their lives and the lives of others.
The need not to be in conflict drives some people. Such people want to have peace at almost any cost, and thus become quite passive in relationships with others.
The need to get things right in their personal and organizational life drives some people. Such persons experience resentment and anger, for they can never get life quite right. While such persons perpetuate the past through resentment, the persons who hurt them have already gone on with their lives.
The need to be helpful to those around them, often leading to wanting others to become dependent upon them, drives some people. Pride is often at the root.
The need to be successful drives some people, even if it means putting on an act in the presence of others. This need for approval often leads to losing a sense of one's true self by being lost in the crowd.
Envy drives some people, always longing for a love they can never possess. In fact, this drive leads one to cling to individual things, as if one can get meaning and fulfillment by doing so. Acquiring more becomes the goal of their lives.
Intellectual knowledge, often acquired in isolation and achieving a position where one can look down upon others, drives some people. Such persons often keep this knowledge to themselves, almost as if they horde this knowledge and refuse to share it with others.
Fear drives some people, as they seek solidarity with a group in which they think they can trust. Such persons often miss great opportunities in their fear to venture out and take risks. They identify with the status quo of the group, playing it safe when taking a risk may be the reasonable response. Their fear becomes a prison against which they must move with faith.
Pleasure drives some people, as they avoid pain at all costs.
Behind such drives exists a core experience of alienation from the gift God intends us to be and alienation from significant others in our lives. We experience this alienation as we lose ourselves in being average, melding into the crowd. The crowd becomes a prison from which our true self seeks to liberate itself. We experience this alienation in a core anxiety. A basic trust in the processes of life encourages openness to possible futures. However, core anxiety closes us off from such potential. Guilt is another way the past keeps its hold over the present and blocks us off from a potential future. The transgression of perceived norms for behavior becomes the occasion for guilt.
Now, the drives that we develop through our interaction with the world may take self-destructive shapes. I do not mean to be too psychological here, but we must not forget that our core drive helped us move through childhood and adolescence. Our problem becomes when we live out of drives that are inappropriate as adults in new situations. The good news is that we are not prisoners to our biological or psychological drives. Unlike other living things, we do not have to live our lives simply out of what drives us. We can live our lives out of the future, as we consider the pull of a hope toward a possible or imagined future. We can be faithful to our future self, a self that does not yet exist, but toward which we move.
We will move toward the best human life that we can lead if we consider this: To what end and for what purpose do we live? Human beings are highly resilient and resourceful as long as they think they can do something. We consider that hope by which we will live our lives. Even if we have only a vague awareness of a better future, that which we anticipate becomes a powerful pull toward something of which we are not entirely clear. Such a hope gives meaning to our lives. We want our lives to have some sense of wholeness and integration. We want our lives to make sense. We want even the unpredictable events of our lives to contribute toward some positive end. Once we consider to what end and for what purpose, we gain confidence to make decisions that simplify our lives toward that end. It helps us define what we do and what we will not do. When we have confidence in the end toward which we move, we have a basis for making decisions, allocating time, and using resources. Knowing the end toward which we move focuses our lives by concentrating our effort and energy on what is important. We no longer live lives of aimless distraction. We cannot do everything. We can stop dabbling in many things, and focus our lives on the unique gift God has given us to share in this life. Focusing on sharing this unique gift gives us passion for living. It powerfully motivates our lives.
Lastly, knowing the end toward which our lives move prepares us for eternity. Friedrich Schleiermacher, in his On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799, 1806, 1831), suggested that most of us have a sense that our temporal lives are carved out of eternity. He used the image of a painting, of which we are aware that we are only a small part. We might also the image of a story. Our lives are a story we tell to ourselves and to others. As we engage others, we become part of their story, and they become part of our story. We are responsible to each other for the story we tell. However, God is the one to whom we are accountable for our story. We need to discern the unique gift God has given us, share that gift with others, and weave our lives into the story God is telling in the world. Our lives as lived on this earth will not achieve their fullness. The lives we touched continue to tell the story long after we die and long after people forget our names. Eternity is the realm where the fullness and meaning of our lives becomes clear.
Only two questions remain. Have we aligned ourselves with what God is doing in the world? What have we done with the unique gift that we are?