What makes a human life worth living? How do I know I am someone?
Our culture has a peculiar addiction to the belief that fame is actually the answer to that question. How many Twitter followers do you have? We don’t like to admit it, but we really do care about that. It is a signal of my importance. It is a confirmation of what I sense internally must be true: that I am not just an ordinary person, but truly extraordinary. I was destined not just for success, but for renown.
Ever since that parenting classic Your Child’s Self-Esteem by Dorothy Briggs was published in 1970, we have raised children to believe that they are not just valued, but special. And if I am special, then – well surely everyone else ought to be able to see this too? If I grew up with the sound of my own personal cheer squad (we used to call them “parents”) then will I not expect more of the same as an adult? Haven’t I learnt that applause is the sweetest reward of all? That it is the sure sign of my worth?
This is not a new idea, of course. We can trace it all the way back to the ancient Greeks. For the Greeks, the quest for personal glory was a natural response to human mortality. If your statue stood outside a building with your name on it; if a street was named after you; if an epic poem was written about your life – well, then, you would live on. Your life would have been extraordinary. The Greek word for this was kleos, which can mean ‘glory’ or ‘fame’.
Yet Greek philosophers could see that kleos was not necessarily good in and of itself (as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein shows in her admirable book Plato at the Googleplex). If being famous was enough to make a life meaningful, then you could be famous for doing something trivial, or even something evil.
Examples of this abound in our times, of course. What exactly do the Kardashians do? Pretty much the same as whatever Paris Hilton ever did. They simply feed the voracious appetite of the world for their cults of celebrity. Even though it is a cliché to say so, they are famous for being famous. It is a very bankable skill, but it is morally vacuous.
Our tendency is to believe that the aura which fame bestows on a person makes them virtuous in every regard. A famous athlete, renowned for their skill and self-discipline, becomes in our minds an expert in the art of life. Even when we explicitly tell ourselves that this is silly, we still seem to believe it. We are shocked when stars like OJ Simpson and Tiger Woods let us down.
Fame and Hypocrisy
But noble character isn’t always visible from the outside. So many people who try to look fantastic in public, aren’t what they appear to be. They aren’t truly generous, or faithful, or even-tempered. They aren’t quite as heroic behind closed doors as their public personas would have us believe.
Knowing that this is the case, we look for signs of genuineness. We love to hear that “he was a really great bloke to talk to” (and not a pouting cretin). We look for the unguarded moment, or for the report of the kindly deed that was intended to be secret and yet later came to the public notice. We want people who will do right thing when no-one is noticing.
Private Virtue, Future Glory
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus majors on this kind of private virtue. If you do your righteous acts to the fanfare of the street, then your reward will be … the fanfare of the street. If you display your piety before everyone, then impressing everyone will be what you achieve.
But God sees, not just our external aspects, but our heart. We may die completely forgotten, and lie in some unmarked grave. We may not make a mark, or leave a legacy. We may not float on the swell of an audience’s applause. But God, who sees all, and who judges all, will not overlook us.
There’s another important angle on this. The resurrection of the dead is a promise to human beings that they will not be forgotten by God. Those in Christ will rise and put on the glory of the heavenly body (1 Cor 15). We can hope for something far more real than enduring renown.
And yet it isn’t entirely wrong to want to be noticed. The New Testament describes a glory that comes to those who worship God. We “shine like stars in the cosmos” when we are pure and blameless in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Phil 2:15). It’s a public glory – but it’s a glory that comes from God. Christians aren’t simply called to anonymity. But they give the glory to God rather than take it for themselves.
God’s fame fills the universe. Yet he isn’t greedy with it. He wants us to share in it. We receive our significance and our deepest worth from our Father’s recognition of us. We are not absurdly elevated by this, as if to make us into something else other than the creatures we truly are. But we find ourselves in Jesus Christ incredibly, deeply, valued and valuable.
Photo: Yahoo, flickr.com