For those of us who worship in liturgical traditions, today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, a mentor and role model for those of us who keep finishing races in second place.
John was, to my mind, a strange guy. Lived in the wilderness. Ate locusts and wild honey — the original food desert. Went on rants against the powerful and privileged. Called people to repent, i.e. to turn around and head in a different direction.
But there was something compelling about the guy. You wouldn’t want your daughter to marry him but, down deep, people knew he was speaking the truth. Some wouldn’t listen to their inner voices, but many did listen and did repent and got baptized.
So the buzz started going around that he might be the long-awaited messiah who would restore the kingdom to Israel, to which John emphatically responded, “I am not the messiah. There’s one who is coming after me whose sandals I’m not worthy to untie.”
It’s a response that sounds strange to those of us embedded in our ambitious, competitive culture, where it’s not how you play the game, but whether you win or lose. Ask sports gear merchants how their sales of Blackhawks jerseys would have gone if the Lightning had won the Stanley Cup.
John the Baptist did not want to be number one. On the one hand, he was unafraid of people who vainly pictured themselves as God’s gift to humankind. He spoke truth to power in the person of King Herod and got his head chopped off for doing so. But he was content to be Tonto or Pat Brady or Pancho or Robin or Joe Biden (we’ll see if Bill can handle the role of First Husband if Hillary wins next year).
Last Sunday was Father’s Day. My father died 45 years ago, but I still love him, not because he once won the county golf title but because he loved me and spent a great deal of time with me. I remember him feeling like something of a failure because he never got a college degree like my mother had or hadn’t gotten the recognition he deserved at the office. But I don’t care what trophies he won or didn’t win. All I care about to this day is that he loved me, whether he came in second in any competition or seventh or 10th.
There’s a saying: “It’s amazing how much you can get done if nobody needs to get credit for it.” Or if nobody has to come out “the winner.” Sharon Daly last week wrote a column in which she said that the village council has gotten off to a good start. I have a hunch that the reason Sharon’s observation is correct is that most, if not all, of the commissioners are choosing to get off the ego trip train.
Remember a guy named Michael Jordan? Twenty-four years ago, the Bulls were playing in a crucial playoff game and needed a last-minute basket to win, so naturally Air Jordan took charge and dribbled the ball toward the basket. Just before I thought he was going to make one of his superhuman moves, he passed the ball back to John Paxson who was waiting at the three-point line. Paxson was one of those white guys who couldn’t jump and was several pay grades below Jordan, as was his skill on the court, but he could do one thing well. He could bury three-pointers.
At that critical point in the game, Jordan was willing to be number two, in a sense, and by assisting his teammate in becoming the hero of the game, the Bulls won their first NBA championship.
The monk Thomas Merton wrote, “If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. … If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”(Merton, Love and Living)
David Brooks just published a book titled, The Road to Character, in which he contends that most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character. He writes that people who exhibit an impressive inner cohesion “possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline.”
We saw Walter Payton score many touchdowns. After each he would simply hand the ball to the ref, celebrate with his teammates and, I’m told, take the lineman who had blocked for him out to dinner on Monday.
I was happy to see the Hawks win the game a week ago Monday and become number one. In terms of character, however, I have to praise the Lightning who had the grace to stay on the ice and congratulate their opponents. In most people’s eyes, they came in second, but in my view they were equal partners with the Blackhawks in providing us with a wonderful, exciting, well-played series.