Mark Trotter tells the story of a man whose great ambition was to become a general in the army. He imagined all the respect he would command, how everyone would salute him and rapidly carry out his orders. He daydreamed of the driver who would take him wherever he wanted to go as others looked on with admiration.
One day this man reached his goal and was promoted to brigadier general. The next day he moved into his new office and sat for the first time behind his big, new desk. A feeling of great satisfaction came over him when he realized that now his importance was evident to all.
Within a few minutes, the new brigadier general’s aide walked in and said, “Excuse me, sir. There’s a man here to see you.” The general replied, “Send him right in.” And then he thought, “I’m going to impress this man with how prominent I am, how much clout I wield.” So the moment the man walked through the door, the newly minted general turned to pick up the phone and pretended that he was talking to the president of the United States. “Yes, Mr. President, I fully understand what you are saying to me. I concur with your idea, and I can tell you that I will share it with the Secretary of Defense when I see him tomorrow. Thank you for calling. Mr. President. Goodbye.”
The general hung up the phone and addressed the rather ordinary soldier standing in front of him, “And what can I do for you, soldier?” The soldier responded, “Oh, nothing, sir. I’m just here to hook up your phone.”
It’s pretty amusing to witness someone who has puffed himself up, having his pretentions punctured, isn’t it? But, if we are honest, we would probably have to admit that we share a few tendencies with that general who wanted to be seen as significant. We live in a world that often tells us the most important thing to concern ourselves with is getting to the top, gaining power, amassing wealth, and establishing status. And while there is nothing wrong with ambition or success, if they are accompanied by grandiosity and self-importance, we may not gain the respect and admiration of others, as we’d hoped, but rather, we wind up looking a little silly.
Perhaps the antidote to pretentiousness is careful and consistent monitoring of our motives. Will the successes we yearn for serve only ourselves, or do they have a bigger goal and a wider purpose? Do we think of ourselves first and foremost, or are there other people whose interests have as great a claim on us as our own interests do? Do we see ourselves as always taking center stage, or do we cede that place of prominence in our lives to Someone else?
Interestingly, many, many centuries ago the writer of the book of Deuteronomy cautioned his people: “When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses and live in them … and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord, your God.” Apparently, self-importance is not a modern malady at all.
But thankfully, its appropriate treatment is equally ancient. The well-established cure for bloated self-centeredness is a little humility. It’s fine to strive to be all we can be. Let’s just not forget who we are and Whose we are.