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DELIVER US FROM ME-VILLE
By DAVID A. ZIMMERMAN
David C. CookCopyright © 2008 David A. Zimmerman
All rights reserved.
THE HIGH COST OF LIVING IN ME-VILLE
I got married recently. To my niece. It was her idea; I just went along with it. She was five at the time, over at my house with her parents and her brother and her sister, and she decided it was high time she and I got hitched. And my niece is stubborn; I knew she would not take no for an answer. So I said yes.
We didn't have an officiant, of course, so the wedding could hardly be considered official. I figured if we're going to pretend, why not do it up right? So rather than wed ourselves, we re- created the most famous impulse wedding I could think of on short notice: the wedding of Britney Spears and Kevin Federline. I played the part of K-Fed; my niece, to my brother's great chagrin, played the part of Britney.
Britney—in case you happened to discover this book in a post-apocalyptic twenty-second- century church library—was a bubble-pop music sensation in the early part of the third millennium AD. Her career was at least temporarily sidetracked by a series of bad decisions including an hours-long marriage to a family friend (Jason Alexander) and an affair that would lead to marriage and two children (and a reality television series) with a man whose child by another mother hadn't been born yet (that would be K-Fed). Britney went on to redefine the party scene as a tragicomic event, attacking a car with an umbrella, shaving her head, and leaving the scene of a car accident. Perhaps you can understand my brother's concern.
Federline (who, we were eventually led to believe, was the responsible one) was an accomplished dancer for touring bubble-pop musicians such as Britney, but his real dream was to be a media sensation. Having Britney as a wife (and a television costar) opened considerable doors to K-Fed, clearing the way for him to experiment with acting (minor roles in film and on television) and rapping (his first album, Playing with Fire. dropped in October 2006). By the time my niece and I reenacted the Britney/K-Fed wedding, Britney had filed for divorce, and K-Fed had become (at least for the moment) a professional wrestler. His album failed, several of his tour dates were canceled, and he was ultimately named by Star magazine and British television, among other media outlets, one of the ten most annoying people of 2006.
Now, my niece and I weren't invited to the Britney/K-Fed wedding, so re-creating the event took some imagination. My niece, fortunately, has been protected from such silliness in her young life, so she simply pretended to be a bride, but I took my role seriously. I put a baseball cap on my head, cocked to the side. I slung an oversized coat around my waist and elbows. I slouched. I smirked. And I asserted myself unapologetically. K-Fed, I imagined, would mark his wedding not with the traditional "I do" or "To thee I pledge my troth" but with a bold-faced boast: "I'm Kevin Federline! I'm important, yo!"
Why do I share this story? I'm trying to remember.... Oh yes. I share this story because about a month after my niece and I were married, my brother called to inform me that my niece and my other niece and probably, once he learns to talk, my nephew have adopted a new catchphrase: "I'm important, yo!" They shout it over and over and over again, to my great amusement and my brother's great chagrin.
When small children learn to say, "I'm important, yo!" it's cute. It's also significant, because they are important. At the birth of the world, the Bible dares to suggest, God "created human beings in his own image." He went on to assign them great importance in the created order: "Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground" (Gen. 1:27–28 NLT). Little children are important because they are human beings, and human beings are important because they are made in the image of God and bear a responsibility, in keeping with their divine likeness, to the kingdom of God.
The danger comes when small children, or grown adults, say, "I'm important, yo!" over and over and over again. Somewhere in that repetition their sense of significance morphs into something more sinister: self-absorption. Welcome to Me-Ville.
SUPERBIA = SELF-ABSORPTION
Imagine a young couple, leading a life of relative leisure in an idyllic garden setting. Let's call them, say, Adam and Eve. They're told at the beginning of their life together that they're important, and they're given a substantial but eminently manageable job description, complete with all the resources they'll ever need. And then they set out to enjoy a life of abundance together. Mark Twain imagined one such day in the life of our heroine, Eve, trying to share her sense of significance with a parrot. She writes in her diary,
Polly ... is gay and happy and impudent, and talks and laughs and screeches all the time. But after all, he is something of a disappointment, he cares so little for elevated conversation, and his range of subjects is so limited. Another defect—he repeats himself too much. This is a vulgarity. It indicates a low order of mentality, also indifferent cultivation. I would not judge him unjustly, yet in candor I am forced to say I believe he lacks spirituality. ... Yesterday when I spoke with strong emotion, and said "How majestic is the universe, how noble the design, how spacious, how impressive, how ..." he broke in with a hoarse shriek, followed by his odious laugh, then stormed out a string of strange words which instinct told me were not nice, and demanded a cracker.
It's imagined, of course, but it makes you think: How does one person, even two people, with no prior history to draw on, make sense of the different abilities of different creatures? Given their well-developed sense of their own importance, how do they measure the importance of everything else—made before them but placed under their care? For that matter, how do they make sense of one another?
Simply put, they judge everything in comparison to how they understand themselves. And they understand themselves as important. Yo.
It's almost impossible to imagine ourselves into that setting because of the world we live in. Self-worth has run a whirlwind cycle in recent decades. The reality of God came into question philosophically in the late nineteenth century when Friedrich Nietzsche declared God dead at the hands of his creation. With God's lights out, the theory went, the world plunged into darkness. The question took on stark dimensions in the years that followed as a world war was eclipsed by a global economic crisis and a second world war, one in which entire people groups —including God's "chosen people," the Jews—faced a very real possibility of extinction. The war ended with a strong punctuation mark in the first two atomic bombs, leaving hundreds of thousands dead in two instants. Maybe God is dead, philosophers wondered; maybe he never lived in the first place, others considered. Maybe we're a meandering step on an evolutionary journey dictated by random events and mathematical possibilities. Maybe we're not that important. Whoa.
Social psychologist Jean Twenge, in her book Generation Me. suggests that the decades following this philosophical self-doubt nursed a self-esteem crisis that in the wake of the Vietnam era reared its ugly head:
The Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory, a scale written specifically for children [revealed that] during the 1970s—when the nation's children shifted from the late Baby Boom to the early years of GenX—kids' self-esteem declined, probably because of societal instability. Rampant divorce, a wobbly economy, soaring crime rates, and swinging singles culture made the 1970s a difficult time to be a kid. The average child in 1979 scored lower than 81% of kids in the mid-1960s.
A strong concern for the emotional health of children in the wake of this cultural self-doubt led to a systemwide commitment to training people in self-esteem.
Research on programs to boost self-esteem first blossomed in the 1980s, and the number of psychology and education journal articles devoted to self-esteem doubled between the 1970s and 1980s. Journal articles on self-esteem increased another 52% during the 1990s, and the number of books on self-esteem doubled over the same time. Generation Me is the first generation raised to believe that everyone should have high self-esteem.
That doesn't mean, of course, that everybody has high self-esteem. Many people clearly don't. Consistently rising rates of depression suggest that countless people still think themselves unimportant, but the parallel rise in self-injury as a habit (cutting, for instance, or various eating disorders) hints at a more insidious social problem: People with poor self-image punish themselves for it.
Society doesn't consider high self-esteem merely healthy; it considers it noble. If you don't see yourself as important, yo, you're seen as upsetting the natural order. You're weird. As one person—a pastor. mind you, who had taken upon himself responsibility for the spiritual health of hundreds of young men and women—told me about damaged people: "I'll pray for them, but I'm not going to waste my time with them."
A side effect of the self-esteem movement has been this type of pandemic of self-importance —a general state of superbia.
OUT OF EDEN AND INTO ME-VILLE
When an individual descends into a state of superbia, individual costs result—an unrealistic sense of the gap between self and God, an underappreciation of one's natural limitations—that lead to tragic outcomes for the individual and the wider community.
GenMe trusts no one, suggesting a culture growing ever more toward disconnection and away from close communities. Trusting no one and relying on yourself is a self-fulfilling prophecy in an individualistic world where the prevailing sentiment is "Do unto others before they do it unto you."
Adam and Eve had one taboo—only one. No eating from one tree. They didn't eat meat, not because God told them not to, but because God had given them "whatever grows out of the ground for food" (Gen. 1:30), and that was more than enough. They didn't spend a lot of money on clothes, not because God didn't want them to have nice things, but because our idea of clothes was absurd to their way of thinking; they were clothed in the glory of God. Only one thing they didn't do because God told them not to do it: In a garden full of all kinds of vegetation, they could not eat from one tree—the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The serpent, we're told in the story, was "the shrewdest of all the wild animals the Lord God had made" (Gen. 3:1 NLT). Shrewdness, however, when stacked against bearing the image of God, comes up short, and we may imagine the serpent resenting the trust that God had shown them rather than him. "Why would God put two such hopelessly naive people in charge of everything?!? They're not shrewd ... they're morons! Why, I'd bet I could have them breaking the only rule they have to keep in a matter of minutes!"
It is embarrassing how easily Eve and Adam fell prey to the serpent's shrewdness. A few choice words about the artificial limits God had apparently placed on two people with such unbelievable potential, and they were convinced that they were important, yo, that God was killing their buzz, holding them back, bringing them down. They were spitting out seeds before they knew it.
God came by soon after that act of revolt, and he asked them where they were, which on the face of it is a weird question—where else could they possibly be? They were in Eden, the place God had put them in, but in a very real sense they were no longer in God's kingdom. Right there, under the shadow God cast, they were standing in Me-Ville.
We get a sense of the relational impact in Adam and Eve's reaction: Adam said, "The woman ... gave me the fruit." Eve said, "The serpent deceived me.... That's why I ate it" (Gen. 3:12–13 nlt). Jean Twenge would accuse Adam and Eve of "externalizing" their moral breach:
A popular psychological scale ... measures a fundamental belief: are you in control of what happens to you, or do other people, luck, and larger forces control your fate? People who believe they are in control are "internal" (and possess "internality"); those who don't are "external." ... The average GenMe college student in 2002 had more external control beliefs than 80% of college students in the early 1960s. External control beliefs increased about 50% between the 1960s and the 2000s.
Adam and Eve each denied their own responsibility when confronted by God because they saw themselves as too important to be wrong, to be weak, to be vulnerable to the shrewdness of a mere serpent. The dramatic increase in self-importance over the turn of the millennium, occurring alongside a steady increase in divorce, white-collar crime, morbid obesity, and high- profile falls from grace, smacks of a similar stink. We're too important for silly rules. We can't be expected to keep promises we made after circumstances change. Give us enough time, and we'll figure out who's really to blame for the trouble we find ourselves in. Jake Blues covered all bases when he was confronted by his ex-fiancée for skipping their wedding in the film The Blues Brothers:
I ran outta gas. I had a flat tire. I didn't have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn't come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from outta town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake, a terrible flood, locusts. It wasn't my fault!! I swear to God!!
Imagine all the members of the entire human population of the earth desperately trying to cover their own butts—on constant lookout for a scapegoat. That's Adam and Eve, just past their moment of weakness. That's you and me and everybody else, in our moments of weakness. That's superbia, and it has an impact on the culture we inhabit.
WILL YOU ASCEND TO THE HEIGHTS?
Within thirteen generations of Adam and Eve, and after a colorful history of murder, polygamy, and such vile immoral behavior that God virtually started over, the entire human race finally got down to business: "Let's build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous" (Gen. 11:4 NLT) Keep in mind: This was everybody; they already all knew each other. So becoming famous was a bit superfluous. But becoming famous is the holy grail for people steeped in superbia. Consider the sad tale of William Hung.
American Idol. the mother of all reality shows, is at its core a singing competition. Contestants are, theoretically, everyday people off the street who happen to have a world-class voice and a knack for singing bubble-pop. Only other people, luck, and larger forces have kept them from already making themselves known on the contemporary music scene. Each season begins with a showcase of the people who have worked up the moxie to declare themselves publicly as idol-worthy.
Among them, in 2004, was William Hung, whose audition is now the stuff of legend. In the middle of a painful rendition of the bubble-pop song "She Bang," Hung was interrupted by one of the show's three judges, Simon Cowell: "You can't sing; you can't dance. So what do you want me to say?"
Hung's hopes for a career in music had been shot down. "Umm," he stammered, "I already gave my best. And I have no regrets at all." There was no need for regret, of course, because his dream of a music career was only secondary. His primary dream—the dream of all the other people waiting for their turn in front of Simon and his fellow judges, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, and the dream of the whole shovel-wielding human race laying the foundation for the Tower of Babel—had already been realized by William Hung. He was now famous.
Standing there, basking awkwardly in the American limelight, Hung attempted to justify himself. "You know I've had no professional training." That much was already evident, but the last moment of his televised attempt to become America's next musical idol was not the voice of reason—"You can't sing; you can't dance"—but a throwaway attempt at encouragement by Paula Abdul: "William, you're the best." American Idol, the ultimate judge of what is worthy of our idolatry, sent William Hung home, saying to himself, "I'm important, yo."
Excerpted from DELIVER US FROM ME-VILLE by DAVID A. ZIMMERMAN. Copyright © 2008 David A. Zimmerman. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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