I hope you enjoy this excerpt adapted from the newly revised and updated 25th Anniversary Edition of The Man in the Mirror. You can learn more and order the book here.
The timer clicked, the TV screen fluttered, and the speaker blared the morning news.
"Morning already?" groaned Larry. He rolled over and squeezed the pillow tightly over his ears, not seriously thinking he could muffle the announcement of another day in the rat race. Then the aroma of coffee from the timer-operated coffeemaker lured him toward the kitchen.
Six hours of sleep may not have been the house rule growing up, but success in the twenty-first century demanded a premium from its active participants. A rising star like Larry couldn't squander time sleeping.
Curls of steam rose from the bowl of instant oatmeal; the microwave had produced predictably perfect results in perfect cadence with his thirty-five-minute wake-up schedule.
Slouched in his chair, propped against his elbow, Larry noticed the computer screen staring back at him. Last night he balanced his checkbook after the eleven o'clock news, and, weary from the long day, he must have neglected to switch it off.
His wife, Carol, had a welcomed day off, so she slept in. Larry went through the rote motions of getting the kids off to school. After the two younger children had been dropped off at day care, he was alone in the car with Julie. Twelve-year-old Julie seemed troubled lately. "Daddy, do you love Mom anymore?" she asked. The question came out of the blue to Larry, but Julie had been building the courage to ask it for months. Their family life was changing, and Julie seemed to be the only member of the family diagnosing the changes. Larry reassured her he loved Mom very much.
Carol didn't plan to go back to work when she first started on her MBA degree. Bored with her traditional, stay-at-home mom role, she just wanted more personal self-fulfillment. Her favorite blogs and online articles conferred little dignity on the role of mother-tutor.
Although her family satisfied her self-esteem need for many years, other neighborhood women her age seemed to lead glamorous lives in the business world. She couldn't help but question her traditional values.
Maybe I'm too old-fashioned--out of step with the times, she thought to herself.
So, two nights each week for three and a half years she journeyed off to the local university, a big investment--not to mention the homework. By the time she walked across the stage to receive her diploma, Carol was convinced women had a right to pursue professional fulfillment just as much as men.
Larry, a tenacious and focused sales representative, advanced quickly in his company. Fifteen years of dream chasing rewarded him with a vice president title. The pay covered the essentials, but they both wanted more of the good life.
"I've been thinking about going back to work," Carol told him.
Larry didn't protest. She had earned extra money working in a bank at the beginning of their marriage, and the money helped furnish their honeymoon apartment. By mutual agreement, Carol stopped working when Julie was born, and ever since they had been hard-pressed to make ends meet.
Even though his own mother didn't work, Larry knew things were different now for women. Still, he had mixed emotions about sending their two small children to a day care center. But since money was always a problem, he just shrugged and kept silent when Carol announced she had started interviewing for a job.
Larry clearly understood the trade-off. More money, less family. More family, less money. Yet, they really wanted the good life.
Their neighbors bought a twenty-four-foot ski boat. Larry was surprised to learn they could own one too--for only $328 per month. By scrimping for five months they pulled together $1,000 that, when added to their savings, gave them enough for the $2,500 down payment.
Larry loved cars. His gentle dad had always loved cars. If a shiny two-door pulled up next to him at a traffic light, Larry's heart always beat faster--he could just picture himself shifting through the gears of a fancy European model. By accident he discovered that for only $424 a month he could lease the car of his fantasies--a racy import! Leasing never occurred to him before.
Carol desperately wanted to vacation in Hawaii that year; her Tuesday tennis partner went last spring. But they couldn't do both.
"If you go along with me on this one, I'll make it up to you, Carol. I promise!" Larry told her, his infectious grin spreading across his face. She reminisced how that impish, little-boy smile had first attracted her to him. He has been good to me, she thought.
"Okay, go ahead," Carol told him.
His dad always loved Chevys. Larry's tastes had evolved with the times.
Carol dreamed of living in a two-story home with a swimming pool, but, with the car and boat payments so high, it remained a dream for years. Larry slaved twelve--and fourteen--hour days--always thinking of ways to earn more money for Carol's dream house. When Carol went to work, they added up the numbers and were elated to see they could finally make the move.
The strain of keeping their household afloat discouraged them. There were bills to pay, kids to pick up from day care, deadlines to meet, quotas to beat, but not much time to enjoy the possessions they had accumulated.
Words from a Simon and Garfunkel song haunted Larry's thoughts: "Like a rat in a maze, the path before me lies. And the pattern never alters, until the rat dies." He was trapped.
Carol just couldn't take it anymore. She believed Larry had let her down. He was supposed to be strong. He was supposed to know how to keep everything going. But Larry was just as confused about their situation as she was.
As the U-Haul van pulled away from the house, Larry couldn't quite believe she was actually doing it--Carol was moving out. She said she just needed some time and space to sort things out. She told Larry that she was confused. The question young Julie had asked a few months earlier burned in his mind: "Daddy, do you love Mom anymore?" Yes ... yes, he loved her, but was it too late? How did things get so out of hand?
Do you know anyone who has ever won the rat race? This question deserves more than a chuckle, because, upon reflection, most of us will have to acknowledge we really don't know anyone who has.
If that's the case, then why do we compete in an unwinnable race? Frankly, I would rather win, so I would rather run in a race that has a history of producing winners. Tragically, most men don't know what race that is.
The proverbial questions of the rat race--"What's it all about?" and "Is this all there is?"--have tortured us all at one time or another. No matter how successful we become, these questions always lurk in the shadows, just waiting to pounce on us when life's inevitable problems overtake us.
We strain to keep it all together, but the pressure is often like a tight band around our chest. Sometimes the gravity of our debts and duties weighs us down so much that our interior posture is in a slump--even if we fake it and stand tall to the world.
"What is the purpose of my life?"
"Why do I exist?"
"How do I find meaning?"
"How do I satisfy my need to be significant?"
"Why are my relationships in a shambles?"
"How did I get so far in debt?"
"Who am I trying to please anyway?"
"How did I get caught up in the rat race in the first place?"
Confusion exists about how to achieve the desired result: the good life. We all want to improve our standard of living--that's normal. But the world in which we live has its own ideas about how to achieve the good life, ideas that are far different from God's order. Doesn't it seem like everyone has his own unique theory?
This dichotomy between God's order and the order of this world produces a strain on the Christian man trying to sort out his thinking. Are there absolutes? Do biblical principles really address the twenty-first-century, day-to-day problems we men have? Is it possible for us to sort through our problems and build a workable model to live by?
I think the answer is yes, and that's why I wrote The Man in the Mirror--to explore these questions together with you.
The Rat Race Defined
We can define the rat race as the pursuit of a beautiful, wrinkle-free life. Since there are no winners, the aftermath of running the race and losing takes a heavy toll.
The double whammy of a media-generated standard of living anxiety and debt pressure is enormously depressing. Not only do we have the tension of not reaching the lifestyle we set as our goal, but we also have the pressure of the debt we accumulated trying to get there. The debt makes us bitter and angry because we realize we played the part of a fool and deceived ourselves. Not only that, our relationships end up fractured. The rat race boils down to the conflict between who we are created to be and who we are tempted to be. Could we define the rat race any more succinctly?
If the pursuit of money and possessions stood alone as an issue, we might be able to rationalize some of our money lust. But every balance sheet has two sides, and the other side of this balance sheet is relationships.
When we choose the rat race, fracture lines soon appear in our relationships, and crumbling is not far behind. Unfortunately, all too often, in pursuit of the good life, most men leave a trail of broken relationships.
The way in which we measure our standard of living indicates the race we have decided to run. The American Christian faces a true dilemma. We can choose the rat race, or we can choose to not love this world and "throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles" and "run with perseverance the race marked out for us" (Hebrews 12:1).
We each make our own choice, but the pressure to make the wrong choice is intense and should not be underestimated. As my first Bible study leader was fond of saying, "You can choose your way, but you can't choose the result." The cause and effect nature of our choice brands us.