Corina Gottschling & David Stevenson
Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the LORD’s will is. (Eph 5:15-17)
All day, every day we are making decisions – the sum total of these decisions is what we call “life”. Many times stress, fatigue, and even hunger can cause us to make decisions that steer us away from the big picture things we say we want for our lives; or worse yet, from God’s unfailing plans for us. During times of physical and mental challenge, our values and the things that are beneficial – for us and those we care about – can be sidelined. Being an academically bright person does not preclude any of us from making unwise decisions, or getting bogged down in the mire of having to make complex decisions that affect many other people.
Time and time again, we find ourselves in conversations with physicians and dentists regarding challenges in daily practice and overall direction. Often frustrations stem from hopes and dreams that seem unclear, stalled or blocked. We find that these conversations often touch on values and how they shape the decisions we make; what we say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to.
Values describe who we are and what we stand for. They back us up, they help guide every decision we make and define purpose — our WHY. Values determine how we “show up”, communicate, practice and lead.
Whether we can articulate our values or not, if we dig deep enough, all of us will have a practically unchangeable – programmed-in, core set of values. We often don’t realize what drives us, or makes us feel uneasy, until we do some reflective work on this subject. Discovering and clarifying what our values are can help us to understand why we are passionate about some topics, activities, causes, etc. and disinterested in others.
Clarity of our values is most urgent when we face times of great uncertainty in our lives. For example, the clinic you are working in was just sold; the hospital has a new administrator or there is a new ‘boss’; or graduation day just happened and you don’t know what to do next. When standing at these crossroads, we can feel fearful, frustrated, lost or alone.
Doing a personal values exercise to discover and clarify your top 5 values is a foundational step to building a meaningful life that will honour God and who He has made you to be. Understanding your values is an easy thing to overlook but ultimately those who can clearly define their values will have a firm grip on the rudder of their lives; rather than being tossed around by life’s competing messages and the opinions of others. Values discovery unlocks clarity regarding the specific tasks, relationships and activities that bring the most fulfillment to our lives.
There are many values assessments available online, but better still, if you have a mentor or coach, they will often be able to provide or at least point you toward a resource that will be very helpful in nailing down this aspect of your uniqueness. This will then provide you with a solid building block to lay on the foundation of your life.
QUESTIONS OF LIFE
Without consideration of individual values, it is difficult to paint a picture of what it might look like for God’s love to take shape in and through our lives. Career and family can often feel like “too much” when we face the big, loaded, important questions of life, and we are often tempted to get bogged down in ‘paralysis by analysis’ and make no decision at all. This of course can have disastrous results, as we are leaving the future direction of our lives to chance and the actions and decisions of others.
A number of years ago, we came across a video series based on a book called The Best Question Ever written by Andy Stanley, a pastor from Georgia, USA. In it, Andy shares that after studying Ephesians 5:15, he discovered what he considers to be The Best Question Ever. He lays out the practical process of making wise decisions based on asking a simple question: “What is the wise thing for me to do, in light of my past experiences, my present circumstances, and my future hopes and dreams?”
So many of the situations we face in our clinics and homes can feel very complex and overwhelming. Looking at our challenges through the lens of this simple question can often help us to unpack the complexities.
What sort of wisdom can be gleaned by looking at our past experiences? We all have experiences that have brought great joy and meaning to our lives. In contrast, we all have regrets about missteps or missed opportunities. In retrospect, many of these regretful occasions result from unclear motives and/or negative behaviours that conflict with our values. One of the steps of gaining wisdom from our experiences is to reflect on the past and look for clues as to why certain experiences stand out as positive or negative.
Likewise, taking a step back and surveying our present circumstances can help us see some things we might be missing — things that might be orienting us toward one course of action or another.
In regards to the future, of course there is only One who knows what will come next, but take time to pray that He will lay on you heart the things that will lead you forward to His wonderful, perfect plans for you.
ESSENCE AND FORM
No discussion about making life’s decisions is complete without talking about ‘essence and form’. Years ago, a dear friend of ours, Laura Lavigne, shared this concept with us and it has proven useful over and over again. We have seen that it is woven into decision making and brings our values, wisdom, past experiences and beliefs into play.
So what do we mean by ESSENCE and why is it important? Essence is the reason behind anything we have done, or want to do, or want to attain. Not usually the off-the-cuff reason we might provide to an acquaintance, or even justify to ourselves with; it’s the driving force, the impulse that flows from what we really value, the deep desire of our heart if you will. Often we might not even realize the essence of something we are proposing until we dig deep and ask ourselves: “why does this really matter to me?”
Before providing an example of ESSENCE, let’s talk about FORM. Form is pretty simple; it’s a thing or action that we believe will complete the need expressed by the essence we have buried deep in our heart. It’s the solution to the problem we face, or the missing piece we believe we need.
If you have followed the above, you might be starting to realize that much of the advertising we are exposed to on a daily basis stems from this balance of essence and form. However, the advertiser is the one who wants to provide you with both essence and form. You are shown someone who’s very hungry and then quickly shown a picture of a juicy mouth-watering Big Mac with those golden arches hovering above it. Then you see the satisfied customer, happy and full. You have just been exposed to essence and form in their basic forms — the essence of hunger and the form of a burger. Of course, if you are hungry at the time, you now have a target in the form of a Big Mac. If you’re hungry later on and just happen to be driving by those golden arches, the likelihood of you pulling in is now higher.
This all seems so simple until we start to dig a little deeper and realize that perhaps millions or even billions of customers could have had their essence of hunger fulfilled by a salad with some grilled fish with half the calories and a fraction of the heart stopping fat, salt and other chemicals.
What about the stereotypical mid-life crisis? A man in his mid-fifties goes out and spends a hefty sum on a sports car and tanning sessions. The essence behind these behaviours is often that he wants to reclaim his youth and feel significant. The form of the sports car and olive skin may satisfy this essence momentarily, but there are many other ways this man could feel vital and important to others. If he took the time to understand what was driving his desire for the car and the tan, he could likely come up with some much more meaningful, longer lasting, (and even less expensive) options.
What about the two Dentists that meet at a conference and realize they both share the goal of being a co-owner of a patient-centered, Christian principled practice in the same town? This shared FORM seems very exciting and they could start to hurriedly make plans to join forces and open a dream practice together. Without digging a little deeper and uncovering their ESSENCE for doing what they are hoping to do, they won’t realize that the first dentist wants to have a practice that is big and busy and able to generate ample income to support her large extended family; whereas the second dentist wants to have a small practice that operates only 6 months of the year and all of the profits go to support her other passion — an orphanage in Rwanda. Although the FORM of co-owning a practice with another Christian Dentist is a match, each one’s ESSENCE is quite different. Understanding this from the outset will allow these two to design a very different working relationship.
Disappointment, frustration and stress usually results when we have similar forms and differing essences and assume the other person shares our essence without taking the time to clarify. Most of us can quickly think of a time when our expectations were not met and we realize we should have asked some more questions up front. Conversely, if we share an essence with another person but disagree on the form that should be taken, it’s time for some negotiation to find a form that both can agree on.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
When we are facing decisions and crossroads in our personal and professional lives, in addition to prayer, it is very valuable and biblical to dig in deep to understand the values, essences, and various forms that are available to us. Do not attempt this after a week of on-call nights, or during times of great stress or burnout. Determine how significant the decision is and then set aside the appropriate time to partner with God to discern the answers to the best question ever – an abundant life depends on it.