There is no surprise that the dilemma that many people struggle with is a healthy sense of self-love and self-esteem. To many psychologists, it seems that having an adequate sense of either of these is magical key to most of life’s successes. From Henry David Thoreau to Carl Jung, from Benjamin Franklin to Lao Tzu, many have exhorted the need to establish a good self-image or self-confidence in order to achieve some sort of greatness or self-stability in life. No doubt, there is some truth to this, as we have seen so many broken people who have caused brokenness in the lives of so many other people, and in the world around them, often because of a lack of self-love and self-esteem.
In order to counter this, many parents and educational institutions have made it a point to go to the other extreme, and I take some risks in generalizing here. This is prevalent especially in Western countries, where it is not uncommon to see parents who are extremely quick to encourage, support, and mutter words of praise to their children with the hope that they will grow up with a positive (and hopefully healthy) sense of self, and to know that they are good people. Thus it would be fairly easy to see parents who are mindfully slow in disciplining their charges when they have done something wrong, because of the fear that harsh words or disciplinary actions meted out on their children will turn them into self-loathing or worse, parent-hating children.
Over the past few weeks, here in America, High Schools, Colleges and Universities have been holding their graduation ceremonies. These “Commencement” ceremonies, as they are called, mark a starting point in the lives of those who receive their diplomas and degrees, and it is typical at these ceremonies that someone of renown delivers a speech to mark the occasion. Two weeks ago, one rather interesting speech which was delivered by an English teacher of Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, became viral after the media took notice of it. What made it unusual and attention worthy was its message. In most commencement speeches, the graduates are often lauded and praised for having done well in school, and it is often seen as a proverbial pat on the back. But this English teacher did just the opposite. He told the graduates that they are not that special. His statistics supported his point. Every year, in America alone, there are 37,000 Valedictorians, one from each High School. So, being given the title of Valedictorian is not really a big deal. The were many other valid points in Mr McCullough’s speech that were enlightening, like how our planet is not the centre of its galaxy, and that the galaxy we belong to is not at the centre of the universe, and how astrophysicists assure us that the universe has no centre, so no one can be it. If only we keep reminding ourselves this at every moment of our lives.
Mr McCullough’s speech had one main point, put in various ways. The problem with society, he says, is that we tend to think that we are so special, and this is not one sole person’s fault. Parents and educators been molly-coddling their charges, and as a result, when they enter the workforce, the reality check that the graduates get is often shocking because often, no one in the workforce will give them the proverbial ‘leg-up’ in life.
We don’t really need an educator to tell us that too much pampering in life actually handicaps us for the rest of our lives. Sometimes, parents and educators do their charges a great disservice when the only thing that they tell them is that they are good, and that they are ‘awesome’ or worse, become offended when the school or their teachers discipline them for bad behaviour or work attitude.
The Church in her liturgy steers clear from this kind of molly-coddling mentality. We do not start by saying that we have gathered together as special, unblemished and sinless people on Sunday. It is not a ‘feel-good’ time when we pray the Confiteor. What that part of the Mass is doing to all of us, and helping us to do for ourselves, is to admit and recognize that not one of us gathered in that assembly – not a single person, is not in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. In current-day parlance, it is just the opposite of the “I’m good and you’re good” mentality. It’s rather “I’m a sinner and you’re a sinner”, so that is our common-ground before we start glorifying God. Later on in the Mass, just before we receive Holy Communion, we make a unified declaration how as a body that we are “not worthy to receive you (Jesus) under our roof”. Yet another honest statement that makes some feel uncomfortable. Some priests have even shared with me how some parishioners do not like to say that statement out loud because it’s just ‘not nice’. Nice? Since when is Liturgy about nice?
But this doesn’t mean that as Church, we do not view each person as special and unique. We do. Jesus came to show us just how special and unique and cherished and abundantly loved each one of us is. His death and resurrection is this very fact, writ large. But what we as Church do, albeit never in a perfect way, is strike a balance between the two apparently opposite poles. One pole being the fact that we are broken sinners needing mercy and redemption, and the other, that we are so deeply and specially loved. It is when we forsake one for the other that we get into all sorts of troubles with our approach to God and the Church.
So are we great? No. Not on our own merit. But it is when we are fully aware of this, do we realise that we are, in fact, very great. Because God is great first.