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“We must be careful with our lives, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously.” Frederick Buechner

I read these words this morning, and they struck a deep chord in me as I wrestle through in my own life the path from making a living to trying to decipher how to make a life (see Living a Bigger Story for where I am at in this journey).

I recently heard of a friend of mine who is desperately seeking a job, any job, not just for financial gain, but, more deeply, because no line of work thus far has provided him with any real sense of purpose, meaning and dignity in his life. He is begging for leads from anyone who will listen, and I couldn’t help but wonder, when I heard of this, to think that, if he had spent the past ten years trying to make a better life instead of trying to make a better living, things might be different now.

There is a different set of skills involved in making a life vs making a living. To make a living, one must concentrate on such things as advancement, portfolios, client lists, budgets, titles, positions, agendas, memos, deals, negotiations, the hustle and bustle, contracts, paychecks, boardrooms, and the all-mighty bottom line. 

To make a life, one must (I would imagine) concentrate on such things as contemplation, silence, rest, prayer, presence, sacrifice, wisdom, virtue, deepening covenantal relationships, putting first things first, and, perhaps most of all, the paradoxical laying down of one’s life in love.

Those focusing on making a living see wealth solely in the context of the cash nexus: the opportunities, possessions, luxuries and leisure that money affords. Those focusing on making a life see wealth in terms of the depth and quality of their relationships, the strength of their home, the memories they make, the moments they share, the lives they touch. In fact, the people I most respect who have made lives worth emulating rarely focus on money at all. There have been times when they have had plenty and times when they have struggled, but the constant is in how deeply they have loved.

To me, the ultimate tragedy and truth is that making a living all-too-often comes at the expense of making a life. One more late night at the office, one more out-of-town deal, one more weekend road trip, one more golf outing with a client often comes at the cost of what matters most, something the protagonist in Death of a Salesman comes to learn the hard way. In Arthur Miller’s famous play, Willy Loman is surrounded by a flourishing life: he has the love of a devoted wife, his two boys idolize him, he lives in a comfortable home, and he has the respect of his clients. However, poor Willy is so blinded by his desire to make a better living that he ends up losing his job, his friends, his marriage, his boys, his sanity, and even, ultimately, his life. Making a better living cost him the deep life that was always right before him.

Death of a Salesman

Frederick Buechner says that “man was not made to live on status and salary alone.” This is why education is so important to me. If the only meaning we attach to schooling is to get grades to go to college to get a job to make money to buy stuff, we have demoralized and dehumanized the lives entrusted to our care, leaving even those who succeed feeling empty (see this great graduation address by a valedictorian affirming this emptiness). 


Buechner writes that the world is full of people who “seem to have listened to the wrong voice” and are doing work that “seems simply irrelevant not only to the great human needs and issues of our time but also to their own need to grow and develop as humans.”

The truth, as Buechner reminded me this morning, is that, like Willy Loman, what makes a life is often right in front of us, slipping slowly away as we labor furiously to build our castles in the sand.

***I’d love to hear your thoughts on what “making a life” looks like for you! Feel free to respond in the comments below.

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The Measure of a Man 

Redefining Wealth

If I Have not Virtue

The Lumber of Our Lives

The Myth of Happiness