STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS
The modern culture of self-promotion sits uneasily with the Christian priority of humility. How do we plot our way through life while remaining true to ourselves?
Big social events are usually governed by unwritten codes of behaviour which leave us with several questions to answer. What should I wear? Does anyone really know what smart casual means? When should I turn up? What should I talk about? Should I work the room like a hyperactive fly trapped by a window or stand my ground like a riot police officer? And when should I leave without looking like I don’t care or having overstayed my welcome? Jesus told several parables about weddings banquets which tapped into the social preoccupations of his age and yet the one in Luke 14: 7-11 may not ring as true for us.
Weddings today are strictly controlled events, more carefully planned than some of history’s wars. The social category of Bridezilla may be largely unfair but it is expressive of the way weddings are obsessively planned today. The idea that we might be able to turn up to a wedding reception and choose which table to sit on is almost inconceivable; instead, we pore over the board which tells us who are seated next to. The enjoyment of the next three hours of our lives is controlled by this nerve-racking moment. Will we be amusingly entertained, bored out of our minds or scared out of our wits? The funny thing is, we rarely think about the other table guests’ similar calculations of us, though the crestfallen expression as they take their seats may be a clue.
Imagine, then, if there was no seating plan and it was up to us who to sit next to. My hunch is that very few of us would choose to sit near to the bride and groom, for we would unconsciously adopt a conventional seating plan in our mind. This means we find it hard to inhabit this parable because we think we know our place socially. But Jesus has something much bigger in mind. Humility is a prized virtue in his teaching, but we struggle to grasp its real significance for us. Almost by definition, if we think we are humble then we can’t be; it forever remains beyond our grasp, like a balloon on a windy day. This implies we should approach the goal indirectly.
There is clearly less inhibition around status and hierarchy today. In many ways this is a good thing: our futures should not be governed by our birth and social mobility allows people to express the gifts God has given them without restriction. Yet there is also less respect for people who inhabit specific offices in public life; other people often imagine they would do a better job themselves and feel liberated to say so. The ready assumption that we would inhabit a role better than someone else without the evidence to prove it may suggest a lack of humility. There is also a prevailing culture of self-promotion which is an uncritically accepted part of life today. There are two powerful causes of this. The first stretches back to the start of the modern era. Before industrialisation broke up smaller communities, people were widely known by those who lived around them. There was no call for self-promotion as people had already sized one another up. As society urbanised, these bonds were broken and strangers were brought together in work. It became necessary to sell certain skills and abilities, setting people out on this voyage of personal salesmanship.
The other cause is more recent. The media age has underlined the importance of personality more than character. We have moved beyond selling our skills to selling ourselves, where the more outgoing, good-looking and charismatic types are preferred. This is so entrenched as to be a social bias today. At its worst, it produces ghastly stereotypes in reality TV shows like The Apprentice and The Only Way is Essex. At a more mundane level, it encourages very personal forms of competition between people that make the preference for humility to look like a loser’s option.
It is especially hard for the younger generation because they are immersed in this culture from birth. The assumptions of digital social media are about presentation and the crafting of a personal image; even the emergence of friendship has become a competitive process, counted in precise numbers and audited by others as they snoop round the personal profiles they have access to. If we think back to our own teenage years, we can imagine how much extra pressure to perform socially this must exert in the fragile transition to adulthood.
If the burgeoning culture of self-promotion is one barrier to the pursuit of humility, then a more insidious one is the adoption of false humility. Those with the money to be advised in public relations know the importance of maintaining the public appearance of humility even if in private the ego is raging like a tethered bear. False humility is nod to decorum, a recognition that sometimes it isn’t done to say what you really feel. I suspect most of us struggle with knowing how to take compliments or to make an honest assessment of our achievements. Part of the problem arises from our tendency to compete rather than to co-operate, and to think in individual rather than group terms. To compete against others makes victory all about me; all the plaudits are deserved and the light can shine on me because I did better than everyone else. In some areas of life this is an inevitable outcome of the nature of the game, whether you are a tennis victor or a chess champion. However, most areas of life are co-operative. The success we have is actually a contribution to the good of the group. Our gifts complement one another, offering mutual support. We can take satisfaction that we have made a contribution to the group with our particular gifts and find fulfilment in knowing that not everyone could do what we do, or has the perseverance to finish what we finish. In the same way, we are blessed by the gifts and efforts of others, who do what we cannot or would rather not do.
Humility emerges in this matrix, where we see the part we play in the group, working together to produce collective goals. Jonny Wilkinson is one of the most gifted and persevering players ever to grace the rugby pitch. His quest for perfection is legendary, yet by everyone’s testimony, he is also one of the most humble of people. He knows he can’t land drop-kicks without the industry and protection of a group of forwards winning the ball and giving him space.
The beauty of thinking about gifting and humility in group rather than individual terms is the way this prizes effort. Individual competition does not necessarily do this, for the one with superior gifting usually wins. All this gives us background to our work together in the Lord. We are one body; we do not compete with one another in the pursuit of the mission of God. The striving for humility is a shared initiative, one that should manifest itself to those who look in on what we do and who experience the service we offer. If we chase humility by ourselves, it will forever elude us; if we join the team and respect its values, we may obliquely reach our goal.
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