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Slaves to Greatness

We often say in this country that the United States of America is the greatest country in the world. As an American, I believe it is too.

But I don’t see this as a fact, but as a matter of opinion. It’s more like the USA is my favorite country.

But when we say it’s the greatest country in the world, what are we measuring its greatness by? Here are some reasons that people say the US is the greatest country.

  • diversity
  • freedom
  • government system
  • opportunity
  • military might
  • power
  • achievements and advancements we’ve made and our contributions to the world in terms of inventions, technology, exploring uncharted territory, and science
  • Some say it’s because we’re the most important or influential country.
  • standard of living and wealth
  • capitalism
  • economy
  • culture
  • natural beauty
  • people
  • principles
  • resilience
  • the nature of our revolution
  • patriotism
  • adherence to religion
  • American dream
  • drive

Out of all these things, most people tend to focus on the idea that we are the world’s “superpower.” And God forbid anyone tells us that we’re not the best, especially if that person is an American. Then they are a traitor. Because in America we don’t just want to be the best, we have to be the best. And to most Americans being the best ties in heavily with being the most powerful or the most important or the most prestigious. And we are terrified of the idea of not being the best. And to many Americans, our country is the greatest as a result of this desire.

But this isn’t just true of our country as a collective whole. The reason that our country as a whole has this attitude is because so many individual people have this attitude. Oftentimes parents’ social status are dependent on what kind of grades their kid is getting in school, or what college their kid is going to, or whether or not their kid even goes to college, or what profession their kid chooses, or if their kid has an internship by their junior year of college or not.

Or people are often defined by what kind of stuff they have. We always have to have the latest technology. Recently in September the iPhone 6 came out. And there are always people who when something like that is released CAMP OUTSIDE THE STORE SO THEY CAN BE ONE OF THE FIRST TO BUY IT. The iPhone 5S came out a year before that around the same time, and iPhones have a pretty good lifespan. The iPhone 5S could certainly last you more than a year. But nope gotta have the iPhone 6 because everyone else is going to have one and you don’t want to be left out. Samsung releases a new phone in their Galaxy S series every year, but for each phone in the series sometimes as soon as one month they will release a new version of that phone and every few months will release a new version of the phone. And of course people can’t have their current phone anymore; they have to have the newest thing. For those who are a bit more well-off, go out and buy a home theater system. I guarantee you within the same year your neighbor buys one too. And it will be a better home theater system than the one you bought.

This attitude even is in the heads of younger children! A kid gets a new toy (or these days maybe even a Kindle or an iPad or a tablet) and if they’re kind of a rotten kid they rub it in the face of all the kids that don’t have it to show how much better they are. It gives the kid a sense of superiority because they has a thing that the others don’t. Some of the kids are just like, oh wow that’s cool, but then move on with their lives. Other kids go home and ask their parents if they can have the thing that the little flaunty Francis has and their parents say no because they either can’t afford it or don’t want to spoil their child; some of these kids will just be like, oh okay, whatever, and move on with their lives, other ones whose view of themselves is dependent on social status will throw tantrums. Some of the parents of the kids that throw tantrums will cave, others won’t. Other kids go home and ask their parents if they can have the toy and the parents realizing that the other kid has something that their child doesn’t have to make their kid equal to this other child so they go out and buy it for him.

When people get ridiculously rich, such as professional athletes, some of them buy like 10 cars. Now maybe I’m wrong, but I can only imagine that they would do this for one of two reasons: either they are a car collecting enthusiast, or they just want to be able to say I’m so rich; look how many cars I have. Somehow to them this makes them better than other people.

When someone is engaged to someone, oftentimes others’ opinion of their choice is judged on what they do for a living or what socioeconomic class their family comes from. Or how big the diamond on the ring is.

We even sometimes judge people’s intelligence by what they do for a living. For whatever reason, it seems that many in our society don’t look at people who have blue collar professions such as mechanics and plumbers as smart, even though those jobs require a lot of problem solving skills. Yet we call them “unskilled laborers.”

With all this in mind, I think we really need to take a look at how we define greatness.

One disturbing fact is that the reason we give Alexander the Great his “Great” epithet is because of how he conquered so many lands. Is that what makes someone great?

We give Peter the Great, one of the czars of Russia, “the Great” because he brought many elements of Western culture to Russia, ignoring the fact that he murdered his oldest son Alexei after brutally torturing him for opposing his policies and also dragged Alexei’s mother from her home on false charges of adultery and tortured. His mistress also suffered a similar fate. Oh yeah he was an adulterer too. He was a horrible human being. But because he brought elements of Western culture to Russia, he’s considered “Great.”

Charlemagne (which is French for Charles the Great) is another revered historical figure in Western culture because he conquered and united lands and became King of the Franks and Emperor of the Romans and ruled over most of western Europe. Oftentimes in his conquering of these lands his armies would massacre people and he would order people to become Christian or else face the penalty of death. But yeah, great guy.

Another son of a bitch who is a revered historical figure is none other than American President Andrew Jackson! This guy owned hundreds of slaves, killed a man in a duel over a matter of honor regarding Jackson’s wife, and ordered many indigenous Americans who refused to “assimilate” to be removed from their homes and be relocated to land west of the Mississippi River that would be known as Indian Territory in a supervised, on-foot exodus that resembled a Nazi death march where over 1,000 indigenous Americans died. But he was president and a famous war hero in the War of 1812 for winning many battles against indigenous Americans and against British soldiers and for the Battle of New Orleans, so we decided to put him on the 20!

Sounds like we have a pretty screwed up definition of greatness if these guys are viewed as great men and heroes in our culture. What do all these figures have in common? They were powerful. Both in the sense of being able to best people and being in positions of power. So in this country it seems that more than anything greatness=power. So when we say we are the best, we are saying that we are the most powerful. So as a country, we want to be the most powerful. And as individuals, we want to be of the highest status. Why? Because status=power. So as a collective whole we want our status to be the most powerful country in the world and in turn the best.

We are slaves to this desire, this deep desire to fulfill our self-esteem by achieving the highest status. But is that really greatness? After all, slave is a pretty low status. When you are a slave to a desire, it becomes a need.

In his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama said that as a nation it is not whether we lead, but how we lead.

A few days ago was Martin Luther King Day, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who truly understood the meaning of greatness. He also understood the existence of this innate American desire to be first. My favorite speech ever delivered by Dr. King isn’t his “I Have a Dream” speech, but a sermon he gave called “The Drum Major Instinct,” which was played at his funeral. In this speech he demonstrates both his understanding of greatness and his understanding of the American ideal of and need for greatness. Here are some excerpts from that sermon.

“If any of you are round when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize, that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards, that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his live serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”

“And…Jesus goes on…to say [to James and John], ‘”But so it shall be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.”‘ The setting is clear. James and John…had dreamed as most of the Hebrews dreamed, of a coming king of Israel who would set Jerusalem free and establish his kingdom on Mount Zion, and in righteousness rule the world. And they thought of Jesus as this kind of king…and they were saying, ‘Now when you establish your kingdom, let one of us sit on the right hand and the other on the left hand of your throne.’ Now very quickly, we would automatically condemn James and John, and…say they were selfish…But before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire to be first…And there is deep down within all of us an instinct…kind of a drum major instinct…a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life…we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.”

“Now the presence of this [drum major] instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers…they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this type of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff.”

“…the drum major instinct is real. And you know what else causes it to happen? It often causes us to live above our means…Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income? You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford. But it feeds a repressed ego.”

“…you see people over and over again with the drum major instinct taking them over. And they just live their lives trying to outdo the Joneses. They’ve got to get this coat because this particular coat is a little better than Mary’s coat. And I’ve got to drive this car because it’s something about this car that makes my car a little better than my neighbor’s car. I know a man who used to live in a $35,000. And other people started building $35,000 houses, so he built a $75,000 house. And then somebody else built a $75,000 house, and he built a $100,000 house. [(Keep in mind that this sermon was given back in 1968, so inflation has increased the dollar amount that houses cost nowadays. Back then houses worth this much were not exactly super cheap.)] And I don’t know where he’s going to end up if he’s going to live his life trying to keep up with the Joneses.”

“There comes a point where the drum major instinct can become destructive…if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct…if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one’s personality to become distorted…you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting…And then it does other things to the personality. It causes you to lie about who you know sometimes…the other thing is that it causes one to engage ultimately in activities that are merely used to get attention. Criminologists tell us that some people are driven to crime because of the drum major instinct. They don’t feel that they are getting enough attention through the normal channels of social behavior…the great final tragedy of the distorted personality is that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. And whenever you do that, you engage in the most vicious activities…the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct…when you don’t harness the drum major instinct–this uncontrolled aspect of it–is that it leads to snobbish exclusivism…that can happen with the church…I’ve been to churches, you know, and they say, ‘We have so many doctors…teachers…lawyers, and…businessmen in our church.’ And that’s fine, because doctors need to go to church, and lawyers, and businessmen, teachers–they ought to be in church. But they say that…as if the other people don’t count. And the church is the one place where the doctor ought to forget that he’s a doctor…a Ph. D. ought to forget that he’s a Ph. D….the…teacher ought to forget the degree she has behind her name…the lawyer ought to forget he’s a lawyer.”

“…let me rush on to my conclusion, because I want you to see what Jesus was really saying…One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned [James and John]…But that isn’t what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, ‘Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.’ But he reordered his priorities. And he said, ‘Yes, don’t give up this [drum major] instinct. It’s…good…if you use it right…if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important…for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.'”

“And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important–wonderful. If you want to be recognized–wonderful. If you want to be great–wonderful. But recognize that he who is the greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

“…if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

When we ask ourselves what the greatest country in the world is or why America is the greatest country in the world, why are the first thoughts in our head not how happy our people are, or how righteous we are? Why do we not measure our greatness by how much we love each other or how our people treat each other? Why do we not measure our personal success or greatness or status this way?

The true way to be great is not to be slaves to greatness, but to be servants of love. And to make ourselves happy. What’s the point of achievement if we are never satisfied? It seems like in this country our people are insatiable and in turn our country as a whole is insatiable. Yes we should always strive to be first. But why is anything other than first a failure? Why do we have the mindset of Ricky Bobby when it comes to success? Why can’t we ever be satisfied with just doing a good job or with what we have? Why is everything in life a competition for us in America?

We value the wrong things when it comes to greatness. Dr. King showed us what real greatness really is. He showed us the power of service and sacrifice and love. And that’s why we admire him so much. We just don’t realize it. If we put the kind of greatness that he valued on a higher pedestal than the kind of greatness our country currently values, we would be a much happier country. Many wise people through history have taught us that love of others and love of self is the true way to happiness, not love of power and wealth and status, men like King, Jesus, Lao Tzu, the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Confucius, St. Francis, Mother Theresa, etc. Yet we still choose the latter as the one we strive for. Let’s change our definition of greatness. Like the President said, it’s not whether we lead but how we lead. What’s the point of being the world’s leading power if we’re not a nation that the world want to look up to? I’m not saying that other countries around the world are any or much better than we are when it comes to this type of thing, but there are countries out there that seem to value power less and happiness and communitarianism more than we do. But as a country once again in 2014 we failed to crack the top 10 happiest countries in the world list. Maybe we would be happier if we worked together more, were less competitive, and changed our definition of greatness. Maybe this would help us live more fulfilling lives. Instead of being slaves to greatness, let’s be servants of love.

Here is a link to the written form of “The Drum Major Instinct.”

Here is a link to an audio version of the sermon on YouTube.


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