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Self-Esteem, Sackcloth, and Ashes (1/22/2012)

Posted in Culture and Diversity

Channel surfing while on the elliptical machine in the gym yesterday I ran across a panel discussion from David Axelrod’s University of Chicago Institute of Politics. One of the panelists was columnist David Brooks and he was saying that, in his opinion, what we have lost over the past fifty years or so is what might have been called a culture of effacement, a general attitude that none of us, in spite of different skills, educations, talents, accomplishments, and levels of wealth, is fundamentally better than anybody else. The data offered by Mr. Brooks in support of his hypothesis was a Gallup poll which periodically asks the question “Are you a very important person?” In 1950, 12 % of high school seniors responded “yes” to that question. In 2005, 80% accorded themselves that lofty status. It’s like in Lake Woebegone where all the children are above average.

Of course there were obvious, though unmentioned by Mr. Brooks, 1950’s exceptions to that culture of effacement, but I believe he argued correctly that it was after that time that what might be known as the “self-esteem movement” took root and we made a gradual shift to a culture of self-aggrandizement and the accompanying narcissism, conspicuous consumption, and self-righteousness which have become hallmarks of life in America today. Even McDonalds, in a 1970’s effort to get us to eat more burgers and fries, began proclaiming that we “deserve a break today.” They never identified the merit on which that deserving was based.

I recall as a young adult, at the beginning of the self-esteem movement, that the phrase, “God don’t make no junk,” from Ethel Waters’ autobiography, I believe, became popular among the youth in our church. Biblical evidence of mankind being created in the image of God and being loved by God and being wonderfully formed in the womb would be cited. And of course all that is true, but, while it may be helpful in bringing a defeatist to a more optimistic outlook, it is not a message needed by the majority of us today who already tend to think quite highly of ourselves. A much more important message might be about purpose, that as St. Paul wrote (Ephesians 2:10), “we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Well, it is difficult to reconcile narcissism and conspicuous consumption and self-righteousness with that. (Let me hasten to add that, lest you think I have become a socialist, the invention, development, and commercialization of products and services and the creation and growth and management of companies to accomplish that and to create opportunities for us to earn livings (jobs) serving each other are, in my opinion, very good and essential works indeed.)

During Mass this morning, listening to the reading from Jonah about his preaching to the people of Nineveh, I had a flashback to the Brooks comment. It’s not obvious what the people of Nineveh were up to, but I am suspecting narcissism and conspicuous consumption. Maybe even self-righteousness. The reason is that the response of the people to Jonah’s very simple message, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” was that they “…believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.”

Many people of faith see the messages of the Bible as timelessly true in principle. If they are, probably an excellent way to defuse the escalating class war currently being promoted by politicians and activists in the United States would be for us all to quit pointing fingers, tone down our narcissism, conspicuous consumption, and self-righteousness, shift our focus to service and good works, and maybe even proclaim a fast and put on sackcloth. Only the president, apparently, will need to go so far as to sit in ashes.

If we can’t do that or otherwise change the borrowing and spending track we are on to national bankruptcy, I fear that in forty years’ time, or maybe less, our grandchildren will pay a heavy price for the demands and wretched excesses of their grandparents.