Win Bassett passes along these words from theologian Richard Beck, in answer to Joshua Graves’s question, “What’s the one thing you want people to know deep in their bones about death and the Christian faith?” Beck said:
If I had one thing to say to that demographic I’d start with Henri Nouwen’s question:
“Who am I when nobody pays attention, says thanks, or recognizes my work?”
The answer most of us would give, shaped as we are by the culture, is this: you’re a nobody. If you’re not someone who “stands out” you’re a nobody. Brene Brown calls this the “shame-based fear of being ordinary.” Nobody wants to be ordinary. We want to be extraordinary.
And why is that? Because of existential (death) anxiety. We want our lives to matter, to be noteworthy and significant in the face of death. We don’t want to fade away, we want to leave a dent in the universe. So we grasp at anything that makes us stand out from the crowd, that allows us to make and leave a mark. And so we get caught up in the neurotic social comparison game–online, at work, and in our social relationships. The main symptom of this “shame-based fear of being ordinary” is envy/jealousy fused with a feeling of inferiority and inadequacy.
The trouble with this, and here is the pastoral turn, is that everywhere we see Jesus asking us to “take the last place.” To be a servant. To be the littlest, least, and last. But that is impossible if our egos are being driven by a neurotic and shamed-based anxiety. Because the reality of Good Friday is that if you become like Jesus–if you carry his cross–nobody will pay attention, no one will say thank you, no one will recognize your work. That’s crucifixion. Of the ego, of the self, of our aspirations to be “a somebody.”
This reminds me of Canto X in Dante’s Purgatorio, when the pilgrim meets Oderisi da Gubbio on the terrace where Pride is purged. Oderisi (who really lived) was a gifted illuminator of manuscripts. Dante is surprised to find an artist of his stature there. Aren’t you the honor of your city? the pilgrim asks the penitent.
‘Brother,’ he said, ‘the pages smile brighter
from the brush of Franco of Bologna.
The honor is all his now — and only mine in part.
‘Indeed, I hardly would have been so courteous,
while I still lived — an overwhelming need
to excel at any cost held fast my heart.
‘For such pride here we pay our debt.
I would not be here yet, except, while living,
and with the means to sin, I turned to God.
Oderisi concludes his warning against the deceit of Pride:
‘Your renown is but the hue of grass, which comes
and goes, and the same sun that makes it spring
green from the ground will wither it.’
We all know this is true. But few of us live as if it were true.
UPDATE: I’m so encouraged to see some of you say in the comments thread that my Dante blogging has encouraged you to take up the Commedia. Let me encourage you to pay close attention to getting a translation that works well for you. You are going to spend a lot of time with that voice, so make sure it’s one that resonates with you. Not everybody will be the same on this. I’m a fan of Anthony Esolen’s writing, but I couldn’t get into the Esolen groove with his translation. Ciardi is easy to read, and lively, and his notes are terrific, but I grew concerned that I was losing some precision in meaning because of his rhyme scheme. I settled on the Hollander translation, which I love, but ended up reading it along with the Ciardi, not only because Ciardi’s notes, though vastly less comprehensive, are far more accessible to an amateur; and besides, sometimes I felt that I would get the sense of a passage better reading the Ciardi. Since finishing the Commedia, I’ve looked into the Mark Musa translation, which I really like (his notes are great too). Yesterday I was in a bookstore and opened the Durling-Martinez translation, and loved it so much that if I had all the time in the world, I would have bought it and started the entire poem over again yesterday afternoon. Point is, this is very personal to the particular reader, so try a few out before you buy. Use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.