The social phenomenon of the pushy parent has received a lot of attention recently. Can ambition be sanctified and put in the service of God?
We all know pushy parents – the kind who are so intent on ensuring their children get on in life that they will stop at nothing to secure it. The Christmas circular letters newsletters of really successful pushy parents are dominated by tales of the latest successes of their off-spring: from pre-school modelling for adverts, to pre-teen beauty pageants and stage school at fifteen. Often such parents are blissfully unaware of their pushiness, and of the impact of such naked competitiveness on the less adept. In front of every pushy parent, however, is a stressed out child who thinks love and affirmation is secured by succeeding against others, not by dint of who they are. And for every really successful pushy parent there are at least twenty unsuccessful ones, whose hope of bolstering their own self-worth through basking in the glow of their children’s awards is continually dashed.
Of course children have to be coaxed in order to achieve their potential in life, and there are losses and set-backs on the way, without which maturity cannot be secured. And some children have to be pushed harder than others if they are to overcome the inertia they are prone to. Yet deep down, many of us suspect that something is not quite right about the expectations we have of children today. We have all been made aware of the erosion of childhood by insidious commercialism, the pressure to grow up knowingly and quickly, and the loss of safe places publicly to mess around in.
To this we might add the growing expectations of early achievement. As no-one admits to being a pushy parent, when to an extent many of us are, we draw the boundary lines carefully so we are never implicated. As long as there is always a pushier parent on hand – and there usually is – we feel able to take the moral ground.
If you were to trace the rise of the pushy parent, you might think to lay the blame at the door of those dreadful tennis dads who used to fly the world to major championships with their anxious, intense teenage daughters in tow, sticking pins in voodoo effigies of their opponents the night before a match. U.S. teenager Andrea Jaeger was so traumatised by the pressure her father was exerting the night before her one Wimbledon final that she stormed out of her hotel and went for solace to the only other player she knew on the circuit, Martina Navratilova. As she was Jaeger’s opponent the next day, it is unlikely Navratilova lost much sleep over the outcome of the final.
But you would be wrong to blame those 80s tennis dads for creating the pushy parent syndrome, because it was at work in Matthew 20: 20-28. The mother of James and John sidled up to Jesus and asked that ‘these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in the kingdom’. Whoever the mother of the sons of Zebedee was, and fortunately for her the name isn’t released, she must win the all time gold medal for pushy parent. It is so crass, you can hardly believe she tried it. Grovelling before Simon Cowell in the X-Factor studio corridor to grant your child entry to the next round is one thing, pleading for front row seats next to God in heaven for eternity simply cannot be beaten.
It was a sly put down of James and John by Matthew, the man who wrote the Gospel, to make such a pointed reference to their mother. It would have been bad enough had they done the asking; to imply that grown men had to get mummy to plead on their behalf is enough to make your toes curl with embarrassment. When the other ten disciples heard about it, they were indignant. Human nature being consistent throughout history, I’d say their indignation had less to do with the presumed superiority of Zebedee’s family, and more to do with their failure to think of asking for it first.
And so Jesus has to take his friends to task for their immaturity shortly after sharing with them for the first time the way he knows his life will end. At that moment he must have felt very isolated in his mission, and conscious that, in all likelihood, he would face his cruel destiny alone. His response to pushy parenthood is to draw a sharp distinction between the accepted values of the world and the uncompromising standard of his kingdom. The rulers of the world are described as tyrants who lord it over others and he seems to hold the political classes of his day in contempt. I expect if you did some psychological research you might find a link between overbearing or assertive parents and the litany of tyrannical leaders our world has been subjected to historically.
In the world Jesus is calling us into, we are not to compete with others in order to humiliate and ridicule them, diminishing their worth through our success; rather, we are invited to use the gifts we have been given by the Creator, and which we have worked on, in order to serve others as they serve us. There is a mutuality and complementarity about our respective gifting. We can look at other people and think, ‘I can do this and you can’t’ and be encouraged by the sense of purpose this gives us; equally we can look at other people and think, ‘I can’t do this and you can’ and thank God that there is someone who can help you, for this is how he has made the world. This interdependency helps to strengthen relationships and root them in humility. None of us created the gifts we were born with, and so there is logically no room for boasting. And in using our gifts, we are to be inspired by how we can touch the lives of others for good.
Today’s conventional wisdom celebrates meritocracy, the idea that talent should be rewarded accordingly. However, the use of the word gift is better than the use of the word merit because it expresses something about origins. We are made in God’s image. This is the root of our personal worth as human beings. It means we are all creative people with different gifts and skills, which he expects us to use imaginatively. One reason I think the concept of service in public life has been diminished in our lifetime is because gifts have been turned into merits and cut loose from the moorings of social responsibility.
Jesus goes on to say: ‘whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave’. These words have often led Christians to struggle with the concept of ambition. Is it wrong to want to get to the top? I think we need to be honest about ambition in order to harness it appropriately. We tend to interpret it as someone getting on in life at the expense of others in a zero sum game where if they win others must lose. Yet ambition can mean many things, including the desire to do a job, and to use your gifts, to the best of your ability. If ambition is a symptom of the urge to be creative and enterprising, then we show ourselves to be creatures of the Creator. Jesus was realistic about human ambition. He didn’t say, ‘whoever wishes to be great among you must stop wishing for greatness’. Instead he says ‘whoever wishes to be great among you must first understand greatness’, because it is found in the humble offering of yourself.
Jesus had the greatest ambition of any human being, because he understood his vocation to mean saving the world. Yet this ambition was unselfish. All followers of Jesus are obliged to follow the same spiritual path through the cross, by which selfish ambitions are put to death. This is an emotionally painful process. It is hard to surrender all that you are to God, because the initial sense of powerlessness is disturbing. We speak about the goodness of God, but when it comes to the serious moment of surrendering to him, we show all the confidence of a U.N peacekeeper dropping his weapon in front of a drunken militia. We’re a little afraid of what might follow.
The sacrifice of selfish ambition may be painful, but it isn’t followed by a full stop and deadly silence. Jesus died on the cross, but rose again in glory. In the same way, a life sacrificed to God becomes one taken up again, transformed and brimming with vitality. The ambition has been sanctified; it has taken on a new dimension.
The terrible irony about James in the Gospel story is that the wish of his mother was fulfilled. He entered heaven a martyr for Christ, killed by King Herod in one of his periodic purges of the Church. But he entered heaven a different man to the one clutching the apron strings of his mother. In touring a design museum in Copenhagen, I came across the slogan: ‘be best, not in, but for the world’. I am not sure there is a better summary of the teaching of Jesus on ambition, and its truest meaning.
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