FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
“Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.” Mk. 6:7
In one of her most edifying poems, Mary Oliver asks a profound and unnerving question. It’s one that immediately challenges each of us to ponder carefully and thoughtfully and prayerfully.
The question is this: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
In a kind of answer to that penetrating request, David Brooks, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, has just published a very meditative and inspiring book entitled The Road To Character. He wrote it, he said, because over an extended time period he collected data that suggests we Americans “have seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to a culture of what you might call the Big Me, from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.”
He then proceeds to back up this statement with some data.
“In 1950,” he claims, “the Gallup Organization asked high school seniors if they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12 percent said yes. The same question was asked in 2005, and this time it wasn’t 12 percent who considered themselves very important, it was 80 percent.” To further make his point, Brooks then shares with us the results of a narcissism test that is used by psychologists. This asks young people if any of the following apply to them: “I like to be the center of attention … I show off if I get the chance because I am extraordinary … Somebody should write a biography about me.” And so on.
The results he reveals are pretty startling.
He claims, for example, that the median narcissism score has risen 30 percent in the last two decades. To further back that up, Brooks reports that “ninety-three percent of young people score higher than the middle score just twenty years ago.” The largest gains, he tells us, have been in the number of people who agree with this statement: “I am an extraordinary person.”
More than this, Brooks claims there has been a tremendous increase in the desire for fame among young people. He writes, “In a 1976 survey that asked people to list their life goals, fame ranked fifteenth out of sixteen. By 2007, 51 percent of young people reported that being famous was one of their top personal goals.”
Brooks is not trying to pick on young people. His point is that there has been a significant shift in our whole culture, a shift from “a culture of self-effacement that says ‘Nobody’s better than me, but I’m no better than anyone else’ to a culture of self-promotion that says ‘Recognize my accomplishments, I’m pretty special.’”
What his book is arguing is that there is a distinct difference between two different sets of virtues that we tend to embrace in the culture we live in today. The first of these is what he calls “the career curriculum virtues,” the skills that you and I bring to the job market and that speak of our external success. The second is what he calls our “eulogy virtues,” the ones that get talked about at your funeral. “Most of us,” he claims, “have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.”
Add to all of this the “selfies” that are so in vogue now, along with the concern for how many twitter feeds I’ve accumulated, and how vast my number of friends are on Facebook, and Brooks’ point is made: as a people we’re out of balance, we’ve gone too far.
So, back to the question posed above: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Today’s gospel gives us an option in answering that question. It’s a chance to accept the call that Jesus gives us – the call to be “sent out.” That’s really what the word “Mass” means in its original form. It’s a word indicating a “mission,” a “calling.”
What this makes clear is that it isn’t just these 12 apostles that are summoned by Jesus to be sent out to teach and preach and heal. You and I are too.
At the end of each Mass, each celebration of the Eucharist, we hear these very same words telling us to do exactly the same as Jesus in today’s gospel: go forth and spread the message of a “radically different” way of living.
Go forth and cast out the demons, the “unclean spirits” of narcissism and the Big Me that rule the world of today. Go forth and heal the sick and the hungry and the homeless so prevalent in our world of today. Go forth and bring wellness to those who are seized by depression and anxiety because they can’t achieve all that’s expected of them today. Go forth and reach out to those addicted with drugs to kill the pain of life in our world of today.
Perhaps another translation of today’s gospel says it best. It is one taken from The Bible In Contemporary Language: The Message. Listen with care to these words that come right after Jesus tells them that they – and we – are sent out and that the extras in life are not needed:
“Then they were on the road. They preached with joyful urgency that life can be radically different; right and left they sent the demons packing; they brought wellness to the sick … healing to their spirits.”
And the “radically different message” that they brought is one similar to what David Brooks is talking about in his book: the move from being people dedicated to “success” and “fame” and the “Big Me,” to people dedicated to “charity, forgiveness, and service.” He’s talking about the kind of life that will result in the “joyful urgency” that today’s gospel emphasizes, the kind of life that develops character.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.
NOTE: For anyone interested, I want to bring your attention to an important new book that has just been published. It’s entitled The Tarnished Collar, by Robert Allen Lang. It’s a novel that brilliantly portrays the terrible tragedy of the priest abuse crisis and the ongoing pursuit for justice. The reviews on Amazon.com have been extremely laudatory. Information can also be found on facebook.com/langbooks. I was honored to be invited to write the Prologue. Highly recommend you give this book a read!