Me Monster: Fighting the Temptation to be Spectacular

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David has gone to the same camp for the past nine years. He worked his way up the ranks of awards and badges each summer, impressing counselors and cabin mates. He's a genuinely good kid and was simply doing what his parents taught him. Last year he received the coveted Teepee pendant, a sure indication that as a camper he had a shot at the granddaddy of them all: the Tomahawk Award. Only one senior is eligible and he had this final summer to do it. Thing is, they asked him to enter the pre-counselor track this year. A summer of grunt work, really, and it meant he'd have to miss his chance for camper glory. The best he could do was wear last year’s pendant (which he was—and proudly so—when I met him in July). As we sat atop Mt. Mitchell on the fourth day of our backpacking trip, under the observation deck ramp to hide from the blazing sun, I facilitated a group discussion on the temptation to be spectacular. It seemed like a good topic for our leadership training theme, but we had hiked hard that morning and had three peaks still to go. Student attentiveness was spotty. Except for David’s. Turns out he was not only listening, but also discovering his Me Monster:

Oh yeah, well my peak is higher than yours.

Mt. Mitchell is 6684’ above sea level, making it the highest peak east of the Mississippi. The peak itself isn’t all that magnificent. It’s geographically and boringly round, and the views it permits can be seen by any number of sites in the area. Worse yet, the place is littered with tourist buildings, pavement and people. Folks come from near and far to get their picture next to the “Highest” sign (confession: we did, too) as if they were meeting Clint Eastwood or Taylor Swift. We talked and wrote in our journals and then hiked on to Mt. Craig, a peak just north on the trail and only 37’ lower than Mt. Mitchell. At a rock outcropping, we turned back to see what we expected to be the glory of Mt. Mitchell. Instead we saw the parking lots and people and all the visual pollution and we collectively sighed, It's not all that. In fact, our best memories came from a lesser known, blueberry-covered point called Pinnacle, which, at 118’ shy of Mitchell and maybe only one hundred feet wide, is a nobody peak in comparison. (Not much demand for bathrooms or snack bars on Pinnacle.) What struck David was the realization that he spent last year at camp desiring everyone to notice his accomplishments. His innocent success as a child had become an idol. He wanted to be the most spectacular kid at camp and knew that this year could have been it. But Mt. Mitchell’s 37’ additional feet of “It’s not all that” put his once-held ambition in perspective.

Moving from popularity to ministry

The temptation to be spectacular—a phrase I borrowed from Henri Nouwen—is dangerous because it threatens both leadership and community. Nouwen writes in In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership,

“The leadership about which Jesus speaks is of a radically different kind from the leadership offered by the world. It is a servant leadership … in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as they need him or her."

The temptation to be spectacular threatens leadership because striving for spectacular isolates the leader. Spectacular leaders fail to see their vulnerabilities, or at least fail to let others see them, thereby elevating themselves to a suprahuman level. This is why presidential campaigns are often so cruel. Candidates don’t disclose their weaknesses, so competitors and the rest of us do it for them. And community is threatened because the spectacular leader’s self-glorifying pursuit often leaves behind a wake of jealousy, envy, and distance, all for his or her own gain. Spectacular, at least in the sense I’m using it here and in the way David wanted it, doesn’t aid community. It tramples it. Nouwen encourages the spectacular person to move from popularity to ministry. I like this movement because it works in so many contexts: family, church, office, neighborhood, baseball team … As ministers, we don’t need steroids to break home run records, or endless dreams of getting a star added to Hollywood Boulevard, or Tomahawks to make notches in camp popularity. We need ministry. The temptation for some of us continues to be strong. The Me Monster looms large. I have hope for David, though. He is seeing a new view for the first time, and that is truly spectacular. Have you met your Me Monster? (My thanks to Brian Regan for describing it so well.) Was there a point in your life when the temptation to be spectacular was noticeably strong? Where do you see the need for movement from popularity to ministry in your daily work?

Photo by Nightpike. Used with permission.