One of the most important needs we have in life is to receive respect and esteem from others, no matter how high or lowly our position may be on the ladder of social importance. This is a good and legitimate need. Humility does not mean being a door-mat upon which others wipe their feet.
But our need for respect and esteem can, as we all know so well, become unbalanced. Self-appreciation and self-affirmation can slip over into egocentrism, self-centeredness, arrogance and an aggressive “in your face” approach to others.
The result is certain…sadness, pain, and misery, not only in one’s own self but in the lives of those who must live near us. When the biggest thing in this world is self, there is no surer guarantee to misery. Preoccupation with one’s own public image and the everlasting pursuit of
recognition leads us into the most merciless of all slaveries, with our ego as our tyrannical owner.
Happiness is, I said, one of the greatest needs we have in life. The quest for happiness is probably the most powerful drive we have within us. And so we should ask the question: When have we been happy? Have we ever been happy when we have been preoccupied with our own self? If we’re honest, we have to say never. Neither have others who are forced to live with us.
In his famous play “The Cocktail Party”, T.S. Eliot tells us: “Half the harm that’s done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm, or the harm does not interest them, or they do not see it, or they justify it, because they are absorbed in an endless struggle to think well of themselves.” People who are nursing their fictitious superiorities, people who are taking advantage of others in order to feed their inflationary ego drive, simply become blind to the harm they are doing to others and even more blind to the harm that they are doing to the very selves that they are trying to develop.
John the Baptist gives us a clue to the secret of human greatness. The lives of the saints give us insights into the way to respect and esteem. To be genuinely loved by others, to receive the affection and appreciation that we all crave, we simply must forget our selves and dedicate our lives to some thing or some one that transcends our selfish interests and human pride. We have to give ourselves over to something that is superior. All of the really great people we’ve known, if we think about them, are people who have been astonishingly careless about their own importance. In fact they really don’t even know that they are important. They lose themselves and forget themselves into what is, for them, supremely important. If human accolades come to them they are quite appreciative of them, but then they go on about their task whether or not they receive any accolades at all from the crowd. Furthermore, I have found that really great people are often surprised when people pay them tribute.
All of this is to say that greatness finds you. You don’t find greatness. If you seek it you will never find it. Greatness, the esteem of the crowd, human accolades, the recognition of your nobility finds you. And it finds you only where it can, when you are located in the center of a life dedicated to a transcendent value or goal; when you are found engaged in the task of doing your Heavenly Father’s work here on earth.
John the Baptist was a great man. Jesus Christ said of him: “Of all of the men born of women, none was greater than John the Baptist.” THAT was quite a statement, considering its source! And what did John the Baptist say about Jesus? “I must decrease, He must increase.” In other words, John the Baptist’s awareness was centered on the presence of God in our midst. Ordinary eyes couldn’t perceive the Presence of God in the midst of our humanity, but John the Baptist’s eyes could. John was free to see reality, the way and the truth and the spirit of human life, and the spark of Divinity hidden within both Christ’s humanity and within ours.
Are you and I that much different from John the Baptist? In a lot of ways we are, of course, but we have some things in common. John was a messenger sent on assignment. But so are you. John was on a divine mission, but so are you. We are engaged in a task that is a whole lot bigger than just taking care of ourselves. You and I along with John the Baptist are sent into our world to point to God’s very presence among us. We have a high purpose for living. And being where we are we can, by the way we live and by faithfully attending Mass, point to the presence of Christ in our world. Others notice how we live. Never for a moment suppose that they don’t.
Your life is not a mere accident, nor is mine. Every life is given by God to accomplish His purposes, to bring His loving presence into a suffering world, to make His kingdom real by realizing it in how we live and how we treat people. No one is an outcast. No one is beyond the reach of God’s love. If Pope Francis´ministry and life tell us anything, they tell us that.
Let me suggest to you here today, in the middle of Advent, that perhaps it would be good for us to examine the question: To whom and to what is my life dedicated? For that is where I will find honor and respect. That is where I will find happiness.
Advent is the time of the coming of God into our humanity, into your personal lives, and into mine too. It is that mysterious time of the year when we recognize the tension between what already is and what is yet to be; between what we ARE and what we CAN BE; between what has been accomplished and what remains unfinished in our enterprise of living.
My mother once told me: “Happiness is something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.” If you and I can live lives dedicated to making the lives of others a little bit better than they once were, if we can find ourselves in the center of what is transcendent in life, giving love to the loveless and being loved in return, and if we can live each day fully in the Presence of Christ, or rather with His Presence reaching and touching others through us, that is no small thing to have happened to any man or woman.
If we do that, our lives will be judged accordingly and we will have as our own the honor that Christ gave John the Baptist.