There are those who accomplish great things. And then there are those who have neither the grit, nor the talent, nor the patience to do so and yet wish to receive the same amount of credit. I try to associate with the first group as much as possible, hoping some skill and/or wisdom may somehow rub off. I try to avoid the second group entirely — but since their number seems to be growing every day, and since they all appear to be on social media, I am growing frustrated.
Mark Twain, as he often did, phrased it much more succinctly and cleverly — “Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she has laid an asteroid.” But I see no reason to believe the underachievers’ penchant for praise has lessened a bit over the last century.
I can speak authoritatively on this subject, as I am a recovering practitioner. Today I find the shame in self-aggrandizement to far outweigh any pats on the head that my boasting might prompt from others. Once, though, I felt compelled to sing my own praises to anyone who might allow themselves to be stapled to a chair. OK, I was a bit more subtle than that. But I wanted to be great at something. Anything. And more than that, I wanted to be treated as though I were great.
My parents were not big compliment-givers. They still aren’t. I shudder to think what sort of ego might have been born if they had been otherwise. As it turned out, I had to learn to motivate myself with good work and the rewards it brings, rather than wait on others to tell me how wonderful I was. Eventually I lost the need for constant praise — not the appreciation of it, mind you, just the need. In its place I grew a deep resentment toward those who were more inclined to beg for compliments. Partly that was because they were more likely to get the compliments that, truth be told, I still craved.
I’ve grown even more since then, I like to think. I still cringe when I see displays of self-promotion, but it is mostly because I pity such ones; I can relate to their anxieties and insecurities, and I wish there were something I could do to help them recalibrate. And I’ve realized I don’t need the praise nearly as much as I thought I did.
In a nutshell, then: first I wanted attention; then I was angry with those who had not grown as much as I had (or as much as I believed I had grown); now I truly rejoice in my humility and want others to share in it — without being actually humiliated.
When it comes down to it, what has any of us done to “deserve” praise? I’m not against giving praise, mind you; we have ample precedent (Colossians 1:3-6; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4; Revelation 2:2-3, 9, 13, 19). But generally these praises are in the context of correction that yet needed to be made (as in the case of most of the churches of Asia) or by way of challenges to “excel still more” (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10). More often than that, though, is standard, garden-variety encouragement. The Beatitudes are all about approving our good choices and urging us to stick to our commitment (Matthew 5:3-12). In Colossians 3:1-4, Paul emphasizes the practical applications of being “raised up with Christ” rather than simply congratulating the saints for their faith. In one of Jesus’ most humbling parables, He tells of servants who labor for their master all day, only to tend to his needs at dinnertime as well, saying, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done” (Luke 17:7-10).
So then, why do we cackle? Why do we continue to sing our own praises, and then resent those who do not join in?
Simply put, we want attention. We want credit. We want to be important.
Christians ought to be past this. We came to Jesus in the first place because (1) He is the important One, the One truly worthy of praise; and (2) we ourselves were guilty of sin before God (Romans 3:23), and whatever good thing we might accomplish or horrible thing we might avoid, we could never earn our way into the heart of the One whose opinion actually matters.
Instead we, like the Pharisees of old, find a way to combine our commitment to God with our desire for head-patting. We flash our resume’ to God — “I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:12). More importantly, though, we put it in a frame and show it to our neighbors — “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them” (Matthew 6:1). We may be as slow as the Pharisees to accept the truth, but everyone but us knows it all too well: we covet the approval of our neighbors more than we do the approval of God.
I still fight the old demons daily. But I have found that keeping myself from actively seeking praise, either in person or on social media, makes me gradually less dependent on it. Maybe by the time I pass from this life I will have broken the habit entirely. Hope springs eternal.