Friday, March 5, 2010

Participation Trophy

(Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. (Colossians 1:15)

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.                     (Genesis 1:27)

“Realized there are 10 movies nominated for Best Pic,” read a friend’s Facebook status. “Looks like all the kids who got 'participation trophies' are now grown up.”  The implication being, I suppose, that receiving ‘participation trophies’—or simply growing up in a culture that gave prizes to kids just for showing up—has turned a generation into entitled hellions.   But while there may be a cohort of young people out there with an inflated sense of what they have coming to them, I think the trophies have become a lightning rod.  First, where older kids are concerned, they hardly seem capable of inflating anyone’s self-concept.

…(T)he expression “trophy kids” misses a rather important point: It sucks to get one of those participation trophies… Every time I looked at them, I felt embarrassed. They were reminders of my ineptitude, because I knew I didn’t earn them. No young athlete with any sense of perspective would mistake those trophies for genuine celebrations of accomplishment. My classmates and I joked about them; we rolled our eyes when they were passed out at end-of-season pizza parties.[i]

Second, some people still think the trophies are good for the littlest kids--especially those who come from less-nurturing home environments.  If you’d never been told in your life that you were good at anything, imagine what a difference a trophy could make.  It’s fashionable to grouse that self-esteem has to be earned--“Self-esteem does not lead to success in life,” said one anti-trophy pundit;[ii] “Self-discipline and self-control do”--but no one can earn anything if they don’t believe they have any personal capital.  Kids need to believe they have a self worth controlling.  You have to prime the pump a little.

Having said that, I’m not prepared to weigh in on whether we ought to give participation trophies or not—but I do think the controversy surrounding them is beside the point where self-esteem is concerned.  If a positive self-image is the goal, these trophies are decidedly downstream ministry.  (Downstream ministry, as I heard someone put it once, “reaches into the river of despair and pulls out drowning souls,” while upstream ministry “finds out who’s throwing them in and makes them stop.”)  I’m interested in why kids come to school needing a plastic trophy to feel good about themselves in the first place.

I’ve known people who actually believe that self-esteem is a bad thing—that we really are caught in a Calvinist nightmare in which a keen sense of our own depravity is all that can save us from self-indulgence, indolence and moral decay.  And while of course an appropriate sense of our shortcomings is essential if we are to overcome them, the sins that I-am-a-worm-and-no-man self-loathing is meant to forestall are not the result of self-love. We take it for granted, for instance, that over-indulgence of others is not really showing them love, yet automatically identify self-indulgence with self-love.  But that’s not what self-indulgence is.  Anyone who’s ever been or known an addicted person, for instance, knows that people don’t indulge themselves out of self-love, but in a desperate bid to fill the “god-shaped hole” inside them. People are lazy because they do not believe industry worthwhile, immoral because they see themselves as bad.  Self-esteem is the foundation of self-discipline and self-control, not a hindrance to them. 

“I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor,” said the hard-pressed Puritan in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. “Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs.”  Proctor was lucky; those who see no shred of goodness in themselves do not bother.

“Self-love, not sex, is his woe,” screamed the headline about the sports analyst in the wake of a sex scandal.[iii]  But grow men don’t cheat on their wives with 22-year-olds because they love themselves—they do it because they see no shred of goodness in themselves to keep white.

It would probably help if we had a more precise word for “self-love.”  The Countess Olivia in Shakepeare’s Twelfth Night told her killjoy steward Malvolio (also a Puritan) that he was “sick” with it—but Malvolio’s supercilious self-righteousness, browbeating and social ambition are really the stuff of self-loathing, not self-love.  If he really had a healthy love for himself, he wouldn’t need to look down his nose at everybody.  We are called upon to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

If a biology professor in Alabama[iv] punches a fellow restaurant customer in the head for taking the last booster seat, all the while screaming “I am Dr. Amy Bishop!” it isn’t because she loves herself too much;  if she loved herself, giving up the last booster in the IHOP wouldn’t diminish her personally.  She uses her name, and whatever accomplishments and human value it supposedly represents, as a kind of kryptonite against those she perceives as a threat and, alarmed when it doesn’t work, lashes out violently in order, not to get a booster seat, but to avoid facing the real emptiness of that carefully-constructed identity.  If she later shoots six members of her department who have denied her tenure, again, it isn’t because she loves herself too much.  She doesn’t even know who she is, and the possibility that the self she built out of academic ambition and a fudged résumé may not be real or meaningful terrifies her.  She will kill to defend that self, rather than face the emptiness she fears underneath it.

“Go down low, low, low as you can go,” said accused anthrax mailer Bruce Ivins, “then dig forever, and you’ll find me, my psyche.”[v] Human beings made in the image of God mistreat each other because we think, not too much of ourselves, but too little.

The more I become aware of the real being that I am, the easier it will be for me to see the real beings that others are.  My perception of the world, or the way I relate to the world, depends on my perception of myself, the way I relate to myself…If I don’t see that I am a child of God, it will be very difficult for me to see that the person in front of me is also a child of God.[vi]

This is the real problem that participation trophies—and all other worldly awards and rewards--fail to address.  People who really know that they are God’s children do not need prizes, orretail therapy”, or need so badly for things to be a certain way that they will scream at a public official in a town hall meeting, or need a drink, or dismiss rural people as “shitkickers”, or need the acceptance represented by tenure so much that they will kill if denied it. A kid who knows she is the Image of God does not need a participation trophy, while a kid who doesn’t will not be helped by one where help is needed most.  And I worry that we are teaching kids to want tokens of recognition—which are not bad things in themselves—as a substitute for teaching them who they really are, which is the Pearl of Great Price. The things we want are notoriously bad stewards of our identities and happiness.  Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.[vii]

The importance of self-esteem to spiritual growth may be hard to see because so many stories of saints and ascetics often appear at first to be chronicles of masochistic self-loathing.  But I have come to believe that self-denial can actually be a sign of a true and healthy self-love.  We deny things to our children because we love them, to teach them to delay gratification lest they trade in what they want most for what they want now.  Though Madison Avenue would have us believe that we should indulge ourselves because we’re “worth it,” that isn’t actually why we indulge ourselves most of the time.  We indulge ourselves because we think the desired object or experience will fill our inner void.  But when we are really on our game, knowing that we are “worth it” can lead us to practice loving self-denial. 

Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel St. Francis includes a number of incidents which, while they never actually occurred in real life, are much in keeping with the spirit of Francis and his followers.  In one alarming episode, Francis’s disciple Brother Giles stands up in a public square with a basket of figs and announces that he will give one to whoever slaps him once, while anyone who slaps him twice will receive two.  Things fall out as you’d expect, and Giles rapturously reports to Francis the success of the experiment.

I had a strong, and strongly ambivalent, reaction to this story.  On the one hand, the apparent unbridled self-hatred of it is appalling, especially when portrayed as an aid to spiritual progress.  But on the other hand, I found—and still find—the story powerfully compelling.  I was convinced that there was some genuine wisdom in it (and in similar events in the actual lives of the early Franciscans) but, couched at it was in such off-putting terms, I couldn’t get at it until many years later, when I had a personal epiphany about suffering and self-worth.

I was in the kitchen (as I often am when I have epiphanies, my other revelatory venue being the shower) with my infant Sophie screaming her head off on my shoulder, and my toddler Clare wrapped around my leg crying “Uppy!  Uppy!” with all the apocalyptic pathos of which toddlers are capable.  Having frantically tried everything I could think of to make the screaming stop, I suddenly stopped myself, as the dawning realization lit up within me:  It just doesn’t matter what I want! 

When that thought came to me, I stood still and laughed out loud.  My children were not going to stop screaming no matter what I did, it didn’t matter that it was making me miserable, and it was all OK!  We expend a staggering amount of psychic calories in self-assertion, in defending our right to exist and be right.  If people don’t do what we want, we assume that it means something about us.  We need to win in order to prove that we are good.  This is the real root of self-will:  not self-love, but insecurity and self-doubt.  It doesn’t have to matter so much what we want if we know who we are.

“Everything that we do has a kind of basic mantra behind it, like “What about me?”[viii]”  It’s exhausting and, like beating your head against a wall, it feels so good when you stop.  But the absolutely indispensable thing that enables us to stop the mantra without falling into despair—to really believe that we will continue to matter after we stop inwardly screaming that we do--is self-esteem:  the unshakeable realization that we are Children of God, made in God’s image, and nothing bar nothing can change or diminish that.  Your slap cannot touch me; here’s your fig.

After Paul and some other apostles were hailed before the Sanhedrin and flogged, they left “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.[ix]”  This passage astonished me when I first read it, and still convicts me of pettiness and ingratitude whenever I catch myself sulking because someone has failed to show me what I consider due deference. The apostles knew that their real selves remained untouched by flogging, and that “disgrace” in the eyes of the Council did not make a particle of difference to their real lives, “hidden with Christ in God.”[x]  If that isn’t self-esteem—being beyond the dirty devices and brute broken nails of the world--I can’t imagine what is.

Maybe it would help if we used the Sanskrit word maitri in preference to the loaded “self-esteem.”  Maitri, as Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön explains, “is translated in a lot of ways, maybe most commonly as love, but the way (my teacher) Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche translated it was unconditional friendliness and in particular unconditional friendliness to oneself.”[xi]

We can be unconditionally friendly to someone without indulging them, or failing to hold them to account, or telling them flattering untruths.  I think the early Franciscan cultivation of radical humility was, at the same time, an affirmation of maitri.  You may slap me, and it doesn’t actually mean a thing.  My children may continue to scream, and it doesn’t diminish me in the least.  Maybe Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek because He knows who we are better than we do.

A friend of mine used to be absolutely frantic for “success” in the pop music world.  One morning as we drove to a festival we were performing at, he attempted to stick a label on a demo CD to give to someone he had heard might be there.  The car hit a bump, and the CD was ruined.  My friend fell into dejection;  a potential opportunity had been lost!

Some five years later, I walked into his studio and congratulated him on being named Artist of the Month on one of the XM radio stations.  He shrugged; “It’s not like my life is any different,” he said with a rueful smile. During those intervening years, my friend had learned where his self-worth actually lay.  He still works hard and is still doing well, but the desperation is gone. “Succeeding” is just a matter of making a living in his chosen field, and no longer a matter of proving his personal value.

The trouble is that we look for the trophies—we take the world so much at its word in its estimate of our value.  Happily, a little distraction can help draw our attention away from our carefully-constructed identities and what we believe are their needs, allowing us to remember who we really are.  For instance, a college classmate of mine who has built a successful career as an actor told me how much perspective fatherhood has given him.

“I’ll be waiting to go into an audition,” he said, “and I’ll suddenly remember:  ‘Oh, right—this isn’t the most important thing in the world!’”  Fatherhood is. So he relaxes. And interestingly—as many of you reading this can probably attest—this kind of knowledge of one’s true value and identity is, far from being a handicap, actually an asset.  Nothing makes the universe hide the keys like desperation.  A person who has seen the Image of God in himself doesn’t get hooked as easily, doesn’t need so badly to fill up any internal void—and it shows.

Growing up, I was always told how brilliant I was.  Although I was a classic underachiever, IQ tests and the like seemed to bear out those early assessments.  As my later life failed to deliver the trophies that all the early prognostications seemed to have promised, I became increasingly desperate to succeed at something, anything; it became unthinkable that I should never have anything to “show” for all those brains I supposedly had. 

My wife hates it when I put a pot of tea in the oven to keep warm, because it’s such an inefficient use of energy.  I often identified with the oven:  though I never lacked for work to do, it never seemed like the work was worth all I had to give to it.  I had placed all the eggs of my self-worth in the basket of success, and not until very late did I begin to believe that I could be happy without setting the world on fire.

This is why we need to stop telling people that “God has a plan for your life.”  For most of my adult life I have felt like Willem in the movie Mallrats, staring at a Magic Eye picture in which everyone can see the hidden image but him.  Where’s the plan, I said for years;  show me the plan!  It all seemed so cruel;  if God has a plan for my life, why does one thing after another not work out?  “Do you even believe in God any more?” my wife finally asked.  “It would hurt a lot less if I didn’t,” I told her.

I have come to believe that God doesn’t have a plan for my life any more than I do for my children’s lives.  All I want for my children is to know that they are a part of me and I love them—that they are the Pearl of Great Price, made in the image of God.  I just want them to be happy whether they set the world on fire or not.  I want them to have maitri and be at peace with themselves. If God has a plan, that has to be it.

When my mom, dying of cancer, was coming to grips with the impossibility of returning to teaching, she said to me, “If I’m not a teacher, what am I?”  A Woodrow Wilson Fellow, she had for years been offered lab assistant and other low-status jobs because of her gender.  By dint of brains, unremitting hard work and sheer doggedness, she became head of the biology department at an upstate New York college.  An adult child of alcoholics, she had, I believe, spent her whole life establishing the self-worth that her childhood had failed to give her.  Even with her strong Christian faith, she had allowed her identity to become bound up with her profession to the extent that no longer teaching left her in danger of thinking herself a non-person.  If I could have that moment back, here’s what I would tell her: 

You are a Child of God; you share spiritual DNA with Jesus, the Image of the Invisible God in Whose image you are also made.  You are a seat of the divine spark.  You are beloved of your family and respected by your peers and those are very good things, but they are not who you are.  You have your trophies, and you earned them, but they do not matter.  You are the Pearl of Great Price. And I would tell her what Joshua Ben Levi, a Rabbi of the Talmud, said:

A procession of angels pass before a human being wherever he or she goes, proclaiming, “Make way for the image of God.” 

[i] Bosch, Torie, in Slate,
[ii] Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, quoted in “What happens when everyone's a winner? Some ask whether feel-good trophies are actually good for children” by Mike Reiss, Boston Globe, February 23, 2006

[iv] Dewan, Shaila et al.  “For Professor, Fury Just Beneath the Surface.”  New York Times, February 20, 2010.
[v] Shane, Scott, “F.B.I., Laying Out Evidence, Closes Anthrax Case.”  New York Times, February 19, 2010.
[vi] Swami Tyagananda, lecture on the Kathopanishad, Vedanta Society of Boston, February 9, 2007.
[vii] Matthew 6:21
[viii] Swami Tyagananda, lecture on the Kathopanishad, Vedanta Society of Boston, February 9, 2007.
[ix] Act 5:41
[x] Colossians 3:3


  1. Beautiful stuff, as always. So glad to see that you are posting again. I hardly know what to respond to, so I'll just pick something.

    I agree that what looks like arrogance is often a mask for lack of self-worth. Sometimes the most insufferable blow-hards are just insecure children trying desperately to feel important. Doesn't always make them easier to deal with, though.

    It wasn't until I had known my husband for about ten years that I figured out that one of the things I like about him is that he has a remarkably accurate sense of self. Of course he wobbles off center now and then, but for the most part he is able to recognize his good and bad traits and act accordingly. Complements and criticism are evaluated with remarkable honesty, and improvements made where possible, but that inner identity isn't inflated or damaged. I don't think this is a common ability. I know I don't have it.

    (He's gonna read this and give me hell.)

  2. Loved this. I couldn't agree more about the 'participation trophies' either aren't needed or seen to be the laughable excuse for what they are - a thing that is supposed to take the place for real praise.

    Thanks for quoting my FB status update.

  3. i loved the procession of angels. also downstream vs. upstream--never heard that before.


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