In August, the Wall Street Journal published an interesting article on the epidemic of boasting. The intro line to the article reads, “Friends, family and co-workers: I think you’re fabulous—just not quite as fabulous as you think you are.” Is it true? Without even realizing it, have we become a more boastful society?
Consider some of the examples mentioned in the Wall Street Journal. Facebook status updates are—more times than not—meant to crow something about ourselves. Even when we think it’s not about us, it is. Posting pictures of my kid’s perfect soccer game, or my crafty handiwork on Pinterest, or “check-ins” at interesting and exotic locations, or—my all-time favorite—pictures of food (look at the fancy-schmancy thing I get to eat!). Yup, social media fuels our propensity to boast more than ever before.
So what is it about boasting that draws us in while remaining so stealthily hidden? A fourth century monk thought it necessary to include boasting on an early rendition of the “seven deadly sins” (kenodoxia in the Greek of his time). Later, as this list of vices became more widely known, it was translated into the Latin vanagloria, or vainglory; we might consider that vanity. At the end of the sixth century, Pope Gregory I combined vanity and pride on the list and labeled it in Latin as superbia—commonly translated as simply “pride.” And Dante codified the list as such when he included it in The Divine Comedy. Thus “boasting” fell off the list of seven deadly sins.
But I think we lost something when we dropped “boasting” (or “vanity”) from the list of seven deadly sins. You see, it seems to me that vanity is among the only destructive vices that goes completely un-self-detected. People may have a certain awareness of their own fallacies with respect to lust, or greed, or gluttony, or anger, or envy. But it seems that no one is quick to point a finger at him/herself and say, “I am a vain person.” (Although we may quickly point and label other people that way.)
And so I applaud David McCullough Jr. who gave a commencement address in June telling graduates that they are not special, lest we nurture another generation into becoming narcissists. After all, it doesn’t make for exciting Facebook chatter to post a picture of the peanut butter sandwich I had for lunch, or update my status by letting the world know I am sitting at my desk in my office. But I think the truth is that most of us live this kind of mediocre experience a majority of the time. And I am okay with that.
Or consider Moses. We quickly dismiss the forty years that Moses spent tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the wilderness; nothing there that would quickly trend on twitter. We would rather focus on the exciting parts of Exodus where God sends plagues and does miracles. But it turns out that Moses’ backhand knowledge of this wilderness proved rather important in the long run.
In fact, maybe God uses the mediocre pieces of life more often than he uses those that are exciting and glamorous. Maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the hours I spend listening to others tell of their struggles and hardships. Maybe it’s okay that I spend quite a few hours each week reading and studying in preparation for a Sunday sermon. Maybe disassembling and reassembling the same Dora puzzle with my 3 year-old for 30 minutes straight means the world to her. But somehow I cannot help longing to express my accomplishments with more bravado than that.
I have to admit it. I am a vain person. And it seems that my vanity gets in the way of God doing great things. Great mediocre things.
till next time…