Thursday, July 17, 2008


This thing is driving me crazy.”
“The man was driven to commit this wrong.”
“I have been driven to err due to anxiety.”

Drivenness is a symptom of anxiety and fear. Mildly put, drivenness appears like activities being pursued vigorously to accomplish a purpose. At an extreme, drivenness equals obsession. I learned today that ‘drivenness’ is also a medical disorder. Calling it ‘organic drivenness,’ some medical quarters define it as:
“hyperactivity seen in brain-damaged individuals as a result of injury to and disorganization of cerebellar structures.” (Dorland's Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers. © 2007 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.)
A Misplaced Protestant Ethic
Christians are also known to be highly driven people. The forefathers of modern evangelicalism have been credited for the Protestant ethic which puts hard work as a virtue, for it demonstrates one’s desire for salvation and one’s saved state. Some call it puritan ethic, but the essence is identical. This creeps into modern Western society where hard work continues to be cherished, especially in the church. When asked where I have lived for many years, I will usually reply: Singapore. One professor who asked me that question was quick to say: “O Singapore. I know that place. Singapore is a very driven society.” That sets me thinking. ‘Singapore is a driven society. What does that mean?’ It took a while to understand what that professor means. It means that constant state of activity and the obsessive desire to be ‘doing something’ in order to feel important. It is that insatiable need to feel needed. It is that ambitious push toward a purpose in life, without which life will be meaningless. Members in a driven society will not be able to feel the difference. They find it very normal to be ambitious about achieving many objectives with a single stretch of time. Multitasking becomes a virtue. Speed is a necessity. Efficiency and efficacy are givens. A fully completed checked list must be followed up with another one. Another facet of drivenness is perfectionism. Dr Ralph Winter’s book, Perfecting Ourselves to Death, reflects the struggle between the pursuit of excellence and the perils of perfection. How do we know the limits? How do we know what is the best possible stage of excellence and perfection? For some, it does not matter as long as we keep trying to be perfect. I know that the Bible teaches us to be perfect. It also reminds us that we are humans in need of God’s grace. How do we reconcile the two? How do we know when to push and when to pull? For me, perfectionism is good, but the moment we make perfectionism or its variants a god in itself, it is deadly wrong. It becomes unhealthy. It is spiritually fatal.

Driven to Unhealthy Perfectionism
Dr Winter blames advertisements and technology as big contributors in society’s drive toward perfectionism. At this juncture, drivenness and perfectionism are twin brothers of obsessed behaviour to achieve. One way of understanding healthy and unhealthy perfectionism/drivenness is according to David Stoop’s table as follows:

If you are like me, you will agree that neither one of them fully represents us. We will see ourselves having inclinations that snakes or meanders their way down the list. Dr Winter distinguishes the two sides of perfectionism as follows:

The pursuit of excellence is an honourable intent. However, we need to recognize the traits of when it becomes unhealthy. The following is very revealing:

“Some people are active and energetic in their pursuit of excellence. They push themselves – and sometimes others – hard and usually very productive in what they achieve. But they may drive themselves too hard, often because their identity and self-worth depend on succeeding at everything. One failure for such a driven person might be enough to tip the scales from a healthy pursuit of excellence to self-destructive perfectionism. Paralysis may ensue with fear of mistakes, self-doubt, indecision and procrastination to the point of passivity and utter defeat.” (Winter, 34)
Drivenness is like speeding down a spiraling mountain of activities on a single lane. Gravity becomes a deadly friend to the self-driven momentum. Like a car going down a steep hill, the brakes gets worn out quicker and the danger of collision greater. The thrill of speeding and achieving many things within a short period of time is appealing, often sought after gleefully. Maximizing results using minimal of resources is a common business trait. Unfortunately, it has entered the personal realm as well. Dr Archibalt Hart, Professor of Psychology at Fuller Seminary has this to say:
“The reason we are seeing such a dramatic rise in stress disease, anxiety and clinical depression in modern times is not too difficult to discern. Humans were designed for camel travel, but most people are now acting like supersonic jets. In a nutshell, most of us are living at too fast a pace. Our adrenaline is a continuous stream of supercharged, high-octane energy. And, as with any vehicle running on high-octane fuel, we usually burn out quickly. If you really want to know why you are so stressed-out, consider the fact that you, like many others, are too hurried, hassled and overextended. The pace of modern life is stretching us beyond our limits. And we are paying for this abuse in the hard and painful currency of stress and anxiety-plain and simple.... High adrenaline, caused by overextension and stress, depletes the brain's natural tranquilizers and sets the stage for high anxiety.” (Archibalt Hart, The Anxiety Cure, W Publishing, 1999, vi)
Isn’t that a sign of drivenness? The trouble with high achievers is that they are most susceptible to anxiety and depression too. There is always a price to pay. Interestingly, Dr Hart did not simply prescribe medication or psychotherapy. He promotes the need for a lifestyle change. Toward the end of “The Anxiety Cure,” he touches on the classics of spirituality. For him, ‘tranquility’ is the goal to resolve the anxiety quagmire. He realizes that modern medicine can only go so far. When searching for a holistic way to be whole, he suggests the spiritual component for healing. “We need to learn the spirit of unhurriedness.” (Hart, 257) Well put, Dr Hart! In trying to be objective about life, we should not elevate objectivity to justify all means to achieve the ends. Getting results is a good thing. Sometimes, it may be a necessary endeavor. However, the goal in life is not simply to get results. There is something more. I remember the highlights of my life. Graduation; receiving a job offer, getting a prize or promotion; successful completion of a major project; children getting into their first-choice school. These are some tof the highlights of my life. Once we reach the peak of a mountain, the rest is all downhill, though it could be peppered by invitations to scale another surrounding mountain.

Being Led
Rather than promoting drivenness to justify the need to be perfect, the Christian way is to be led by the Spirit. The verse: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matt 5:48) is sometimes used to justify perfectionism. The problem arises when we extract this verse out of its original context and apply it carelessly into our modern situations. When things go wrong, we blame God, or we continue on our foolish ways in the name of perseverance. Matthew 5:48 must be read in the light of verses 43-47 which touches on the need to love one’s enemies. Verses 43-48 must be seen in the light of the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus gave to his disciples and hearers. It is a declaration of what it means to live blessed lives in God. The Sermon on the Mount is part of Matthew’s gospel of Jesus Christ, authored by Matthew to the Jewish Christians during 70-80AD. The gospel is part of the big story of God coming and revealing himself to creation and man. Hence, it will be foolish for anyone to pluck one verse out of this context and apply to their own self-driven objectives. When Jesus calls on his disciples to ‘be perfect,’ he was using it with reference to loving one’s neighbours and enemies with the same attitude of the heart. Jesus uses the Greek (telos) τέλος which also means ‘complete.’ It is a journey of achieving completeness. This love journey has no time limit. Just like God causes the sun to shine on both the evil and the good, we ought to love people on a renewed basis day by day. The sun rises at dawn daily, so too, our attitude to love people must increase each day. At dusk, we learn to rest, and this is a wonderful corrective to a life of drivenness. Even the most capable commando needs to rest. Sleep is a gift from God (Ps 127:2b). One reason why we find it difficult to love our enemies is perhaps because we have failed to rest sufficiently. Love requires attention. It necessitates wakefulness. Love needs to be led by the Spirit, for loving people can never be done on our own strength. Driven love is not love because it is fundamentally a selfish behaviour. That is why when it comes to love, nothing beats the imagery of a shepherd tending his sheep. Frederick Buechner eloquently describes the shepherd and his sheep:
“Like sheep we get hungry, and hungry for more than just food. We get thirsty for more than just drink. Our souls get hungry and thirsty; in fact it is often that sense of inner emptiness that makes us know we have souls in the first place. There is nothing that the world has to give us, there is nothing that we have to give to each other even, that ever quite fills them. But once in a while that inner emptiness is filled even so. That is part of what the psalm means by saying that God is like a shepherd, I think. It means that, like a shepherd, he feeds us. He feeds that part of us which is hungriest and most in need of feeding.” (Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life, Harper San Francisco, 1992, p178)
At rest, we learn hunger. We seek to be fed. We are given water to quench our thirst. We are given food to satisfy our hunger. Pity the one who uses drivenness to meet his needs, who drinks water of objective goals that never quenches and the food of perfectionism that never satisfies; For the one who is lord over himself, who feels called only to pursue his own ends/means, who runs meaninglessly toward illusive goals under the guise of attaining objectives that never seem to end. The words of a favourite song comes to mind.

Where might you be going this fine day, my friend?
Off a long and aimless road that soon must end,
Chasing an illusive dream that shines so fair,
But when found, isn't there.

I can understand your weary sigh, my friend;
There, but for the grace of God go I, my friend.
Come and let Him lead you to your jouney's end,
Oh, come along and walk with Him

If without the grace of God your life should end
And before the face of God you'd stand, my friend.
What would your illusive dream avail you then,
So, come along and walk with Him.

Yes. Let us continue to walk in the Lord. Let us swim with him in the waters of uncertainty, knowing that he is in control. Let us run with him and not faint. Let us mount up our wings like eagles, and fly toward the horizon of God, and in our flight learn not an escape from the world, but to engage with the world. In our fight against the spiritual powers of evil and darkness, let us learn to not to replace our childlike enthusiasm to serve God wherever we are, to continually embrace the loving arms of the Shepherd. We must serve well, and rest well. I shall close with an excerpt from the Velveteen Rabbit, written by Margery Williams Bianco.

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."
It is important to note that drivenness is not real. It is not even a demonstration of what 'real' means. In order to be real, we need to learn to be led by God into becoming who we really are. That way, we do not allow drivenness to define our identity. We allow our Creator to bring us back to our original blueprint for life. This blueprint is best described by the famous words of Augustine's Confessions.

Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.

Indeed, under the loving hands of our Maker-Creator, we are made real.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Was just googling 'driveness' this evening, and your post wonderfully appeared. God's timing indeed - thanks so much. Be encouraged :-)

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