If you haven’t read it already, you owe it to yourself to the read the May 26, 2005 column of Peggy Noonan. The focus of her column is the gang of fourteen, those six Democrat and six Republican Senators who in essence took control of the Senate by forming a cabal that could block anything they didnt agree upon. That their actions were ostensibly about the issues of judicial nominees and filibuster versus closure is a smokescreen. Its not that they didnt consider the issue important, but it was just a means to an end. As Peggy notes, it is really about personal aggrandizement and power. The issue they used is just the cover.
But within her article is a deeper observation that transcends the arrogance of those fourteen and looks squarely in the eye a growing trend within our society to seize the moment, the opportunity for fame, for your fifteen minutes of acclaim and then milk it for all its worth. Modesty be damned is the watchword, for this is my moment; look at me! As Peggy says,
Every announcement of news in America has become an Academy Awards show. And every speaker has become a variation on Sally Fields: “I like me, I really like me!”
When investigating why this happens, Ms. Noonan uses the fourteen Senators and the advice of their advisors as an example, since after all, image is everything, especially on television.
…it was, no doubt, the counsel of their advisers that in the magic medium of television, if you declare you are a “hero” often enough people will come to associate the word “hero” with you…I think everyone in politics now has been affected by the linguistic sleight-of-hand, which began with the Kennedys in the 1960s, in which politics is called “public service,” and politicians are allowed and even urged to call themselves “public servants.” Public servants are heroic and self-denying. Therefore politicians are heroic and self-denying. I think this thought has destabilized them.
As we look around we find that the mantle of public service is not just for politicians. Anyone who steps up and does something that in some way can be construed as adding to the public good is acting as a public servant and can therefore take on the mantle of humble hero, no matter how mundane the act. Look at me, they say, haven’t I been heroic? However, Ms. Noonan goes on to contrast the real with the imagined.
People who charge into burning towers are heroic; nuns who work with the poorest of the poor are self-denying; people who volunteer their time to help our world and receive nothing in return but the knowledge they are doing good are in public service. Politicians are in politics. They are less self-denying than self-aggrandizing. They are given fame, respect, the best health care in the world; they pass laws governing your life and receive a million perks including a good salary, and someone else–faceless taxpayers, “the folks back home”–gets to pay for the whole thing. This isn’t public service, it’s more like public command. [emphasis added]
As I read this I was reminded of one of the more difficult passages in the New Testament, one that strikes to the heart of this phenomenon. It is found in Luke 17:7-10 and it is where Jesus discusses how to treat a servant who is doing their duty (think about these self-aggrandizing “public servants” in this context).
If your servant comes in from plowing or from taking care of the sheep, would you say, “Welcome! Come on in and have something to eat”? No, you wouldn’t say that. You would say, “Fix me something to eat. Get ready to serve me, so I can have my meal. Then later on you can eat and drink.” Servants don’t deserve special thanks for doing what they are supposed to do. And that’s how it should be with you. When you’ve done all you should, then say, “We are merely servants, and we have simply done our duty.”
I think you will agree that this is a hard saying, but it is directly to the point. Duty and honor with humility giving a sense of proportion and balance versus self-importance, self-aggrandizement, faux humility which puffs up and creates mountains of feigned significance out of relative molehills.
Jesus rightly asks us why we should be rewarded for doing what we are merely supposed to be doing? That can only occur when the yardstick is shrunk to a six inch ruler and every action appears outsized when measured against this miniscule standard. Personally, I see this as the natural evolution of our society’s fixation with self-esteem, of wanting everyone to have a chance to play the hero; not for doing something truly heroic, but for just being themselves, merely for getting up in the morning and doing their job.
When we dilute true importance with the adulterant of common celebrity, real heroes get shunted to the wayside or at best become props for those who want their own moment of fame. Furthermore, as the scramble for unearned personal significance spreads like a cancer through our culture, the remaining social fabric begins to rot to its core. It was noted in a warning in Proverbs that “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.’ (Proverbs 16:18) With that in mind is it not possible that destruction and a significant fall are just ahead for our culture and our country.
“So, what should I do?” you ask me, I am just one person. Well start by being humble yourself and not seeking the spotlight. Do your duty and be humble about it. Teach your children and your friends to act the same way. Don’t support or join in the celebration of those who slap themselves on the back or grab the spotlight. Instead, wherever possible, pull the plug; throw the switch; power down the support for the publicity machine. Yes, by all means honor true heroism, appreciate true adherence to difficult duty, but do it with high dignity and great respect, and yes, if necessary, do it in an understated manner. Leave the circus to the big top.
Remember, the only real words of adulation any of us really want to hear are the words of Jesus; we want to hear him say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34) If that is our goal we should heed his council when he says,
Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly. (Matthew 6:2-4)
And just to remind you in case you forgot, we already talked about his opinion of those who are just doing their bounden duty. So good Christian, go out an act accordingly. And in doing so, may God encourage you in your duty, grant you humility in all things, grace to help in your time of need, and the peace that passes all understanding, which will guard your heart and mind in the knowledge and love of Christ, our Lord, until you hear that blessed word, Come…