Hans Christian Andersen wrote a touching, lesson-based children’s story that has endured for nearly 150 years. It’s a story about inferiority based on appearance, and most of us know and understand the lesson being taught in the tale of “The Ugly Duckling.” As you know, the “ugly ducking” was really a swan who, as a baby, found himself growing up among ducks to whom, obviously, he looked different. The ducks interpreted different as ugly, and the “ugly ducking” adopted their way of looking at him as the basis of his own self image.
When the “duckling” is grown, and after so many hard knocks that he wishes he were dead, the truth comes out. He’s not a duck at all. He’s a gorgeous, elegant swan, but it took accidentally finding some swans before he really understood what he was. The swans did not think him ugly at all; in reality, he may have been the most beautiful swan of all, so beautiful that many swans bowed when he swam near them.
Perhaps reading more into the story than Andersen intended, the swan may still have felt like an ugly ducking deep down inside. Though he rejoiced to find out that he wasn’t any kind of duck, he had a horrible past that might travel with him for the rest of his swan-life. Those who knew Andersen well, said when they read the story that it was autobiographical, that he was the ugly duckling who grew up feeling very unattractive. Despite his enormous success as a writer of children’s stories and other types of literature that brought him fame worldwide and admirers who saw anyone who could write such stories as a beautiful person, he always saw himself as the ugly duckling and never the gorgeous swan. Fortunately, Andersen didn’t let his inferiority complex keep him from taking the risks necessary to achieve, and to achieve remarkably, but he could have lived with much greater personal happiness if he had been able to think well of himself personally and not just well of himself as a writer.
There are loads of people all around us who were taught or conditioned as children to think of themselves as inferior, as of less significance and value than everyone or nearly everyone around them. That self image has stayed with them to this point in their lives, and, sadly for most, it likely will follow them to the end of their days. It has crippled them emotionally, and their lack of confidence, which is the typical companion of a sense of inferiority, keeps them from believing they deserve the best so they choose pathways where they will not be expected to achieve great things. They often choose a partner, if they do that at all, who isn’t suitable for them, but if they dare risk relationship they typically connect with someone who will keep them feeling inferior about themselves.
It’s a way overused cliche by now, but I can recall in my teen years when I heard one of the youth leaders in our church say to one of the misfit kids in our group, “I wish I could buy you for what you think you’re worth and sell you for what I know you’re worth!” I thought that was a supremely liberating comment for someone to make to an individual who felt less valuable than other members of our youth group, and all of humanity for that matter, even the jerks.
My maternal grandmother, who died about a year ago at the age of 93, treated almost everyone close to her unkindly–her husband who adored her come what may, her daughter, her son, her mother, and so on. She grew up dirt poor and had very few opportunities to break out of that prison of poverty. She had both of her children out of wedlock. Each one had a different father, and the man she married who understood and practiced unconditional love was not the father of either. Raised in religious fundamentalism, she hated herself for what she considered her “sins,” and her innate exceptional intelligence caused her to see that there was a much better world out there in which she was capable of functioning if only she could break free of the cycle of poverty and the powerful sense of inferiority that her environment nurtured so effectively in her.
For someone with so few opportunities at hand, she did very well for herself. She became a nurse’s aid and excelled at that at a young age; she studied, did the practice, took the tests, and became a Licensed Practical Nurse. Registered Nurses who supervised her, praised her work, and in her early 50’s I’d guess the University of Tennessee Hospital where she worked at the time sent her to New York City from Knoxville to take a course, on its dime, in pharmacology. She finished the course with the best or one of the best grades in the class–a final grade average of something like 98. The hospital could then give her a position as a charge nurse, a position at that time, which almost always went to a Registered Nurse.
From there she was hired as Director of Activities at the county-operated nursing home for the indigent and soon after that Director of Activities at a snazzy Independent Living facility. She could never believe that she was a part of the management team and had a plush office with her name on a gold plate on her door: “Pearl Foust.” At work, she was amazing–confident and successful. At home, however, she was, in her mind, the inferior mountain girl, a failure, poor and loose.
Only when she was stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease did she forget to hate herself and to strike out at those around her who tried their damnedest to love her. She hated not being at home once a care facility was required, but she never got beyond a mid-stage Alzheimer’s so, during her later years, she knew her children and appreciated them and spoke to them finally with kindness and love.
Getting rid of inferiority is not just a matter of waking up one day and saying, “OK, today I’m tossing my inferiority complex since I realize that I’m at least equal to everybody else.” Something like that does have to happen, though.
Last week we talked about John the Baptist and his being Jesus’ mentor originally, but realizing as Jesus progressed that Jesus was and would be far beyond him, John, in terms of spiritual understanding. In pointing those who had come to him to Jesus instead, John said, “He will go so far beyond where I have been able to lead you that I don’t feel worthy to be his slave and carry his dirty sandals.” As to roles, though, each had his own, and Jesus wouldn’t have gotten as far as he did without John’s instruction and support.
In the Season of Expectation we usually look at some of the key characters involved in the stories of the birth of Jesus. One of those persons whom we must consider is the young woman who became his mother, Mary. If Jesus were Mary’s firstborn child, and we have no reason to believe otherwise, then Mary probably was about 13 years old when she delivered him. The societal sign that she was ready to bear a child was the onset of puberty. Young boys at her age were being bar mitzvahed; young girls in Mary’s time we’re not bat mitzvahed, and so it is surprising how much Mary, at the tender age of 13, knows about the history of messianic expectation among her people especially since she, unlike the boys, would not have had an opportunity to study and learn.
When Mary responds affirmatively to the angel’s moving announcement that she has been tapped by God Godself to be the mother of God’s Anointed One, that is the child who would grow up to set right the Jewish people and perhaps the whole world, Mary seems calmly accepting of what she will have a role in creating, even though the description the angel or messenger gives of what the messiah will be about is not a full picture of what Mary’s people were hoping for. Many believe she, nonetheless, sung these words:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness [read that: ‘the inferiority’] of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; or the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is the divine name. God’s mercy is for those who reverence God from generation to generation. The Lord has shown strength with the divine arm and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty, has helped God’s servant Israel, in remembrance of divine mercy, according to the promise made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:46-55 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language).
Mary’s response to the messenger’s message is memorable from literary, musical, and theological perspectives. When she agrees to become the vessel, not that she seems to have had much of a choice, but when she affirms that she’s willing to be used of God to bring this child into the world, she expresses first of all her feelings of inferiority, her lowliness. Now, I’m not saying that it is uncommon for someone who has a great honor bestowed upon her or him to feel humbled at the prospect, and especially if the position to which she or he has been appointed or elected requires ongoing effort, work.
Mary is going to have the baby, and Joseph the father of the child has only to stand at Mary’s side and wish her well as the pregnancy progresses and as the delivery is underway. This is the sad and awkward position of every father who ever participated in the procreative process nine months ago but at the time of delivery may be filled with a plethora of emotions but feels no pain, except possibly for sympathy pain.
Jesus grew up the way any other little Jewish boy of his time in that place would’ve grown up. His parents had the same expectations of him that other parents had of their boys. Mary and Joseph had no special ways to raise someone anointed by God to do some special task so Jesus was treated like the other boys in the family.
Mary is very much a woman of her time, and there was a certain amount, a large portion, of inferiority heaped upon all women by their culture. Even in the child bearing arena, men of the time who pondered the men’s role in that part of life came to the conclusion that men were the key players in the procreative process and women merely incubators who because of Eve and that stupid fruit tree were supposed to have excruciating pain when the little one popped out of the oven. Such a horrible myth.
Here’s the thing that catches my eye. As informed as Mary appears to be at the beginning and as unshaken, we are caught off guard at her ongoing surprise at how Jesus matures. Mary is surprised at how vigorously Jesus preps for his bar mitzvah. She is completely stunned at how taken the rabbis at the Temple are with the knowledge this 12 year old boy has. His father was a carpenter, certainly a devout Jew and maybe much more widely familiar with Jewish scripture and traditions than the average carpenter, but he wasn’t a rabbi. There was only so much Joseph could teach Jesus about religion. Maybe Mary and Joseph attended a synagogue with a rabbi who took a special interest in Jesus because of his precociousness or because of his drive to learn. Mary was totally unprepared, though, for what his efforts gained him intellectually.
Jump ahead to Jesus at 31 or 32 years of age in the midst of his public ministry, and Mary along with the Jesus’ siblings are humiliated with what he is saying and what he’s doing in conflict with the ancient traditions according to which he had been raised and which served as the foundation for what Jesus learned in order to be called a man, a son of the covenant. Some of the storytellers let us see moments when Mary with her other children, and we have to assume that Joseph had died by the time Jesus’ public ministry began, were humiliated by the reputation Jesus’ was developing in certain quarters. In their confusion and embarrassment and anger, they told people, and not in hushed tones, that he had lost his mind. “Please don’t think ill of him; he’s insane,” they said. A mother with an inferiority complex undoubtedly expected that at least one of her children would cause her to look bad as a parent, but she hadn’t thought Jesus would be the one–James maybe, but not Jesus.
When the Romans through Pontius Pilate pronounced Jesus’ death sentence Mary stayed as near him as she could until the moment he died and his body was taken down off the cross and put into the borrowed tomb of Joseph of Aramathea. At the end, as she took in first hand the death of her firstborn, Mary isn’t, for the moment, any more focused on feelings of inferiority than were other Jewish women who lived when she did; however, she does wonder at the glowing song she had sung back when the angel or messenger told her that she would have a son whose name would be something in the family of Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.” Really? Is this how God’s Anointed One prevails? Is this how God is with us? Isn’t this, instead, the most wasted life she’d ever known anything at all about? Perhaps a mother, she thought, with a little more self-confidence would have taught him how to stand up for himself and not die unless all, absolutely all, other avenues had been pursued.
Hear again this instructional word from parent to child as found in A HUMANIST BIBLE:
“…do you find yourself hurt and mortified when another makes you feel her or his superiority, and your own inferiority, in knowledge, parts, rank or fortune? You will certainly take great care not to make a person whose goodwill, good word, interest, esteem or friendship you would gain, feel that superiority in you, if you have it. If disagreeable insinuations, sneers or repeated contradictions tease and irritate you, would you use them where you wish to engage and please? Surely not, and I hope you wish to engage and please, almost universally.”
It is almost as if someone must lay a cloak of inferiority across us, but emotionally healthier people say that those of us who embrace inferiority give someone or someones permission to make us feel that we are worth less than other humans like us and worth less than human beings in general. In the words of the great First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” For thinking first world people with power and privilege that is absolutely the truth, but there are vast numbers of people in the world, plenty right here in Wilmington, who have been handed a sense of inferiority just for being born, just for being whom they can’t help but be.
Back when there were jobs–remember that far back? What was the most commonly uttered critique of someone who appeared to make no effort to nab one of those jobs that paid minimum wage and left a worker after a full week’s work still below the poverty level and maybe paying a higher percentage in taxes than the stunningly wealthy pay? “Lazy. Won’t work. Won’t even try to work.”
The wage business aside, if you have been told that you are good for nothing all or most of your life, out loud or through silent stares, then you believe it. You wish you had it in you to risk applying for a job, but you are so completely convinced that you don’t have a shot anyway that you refuse to bother. Especially when there were jobs–remember when there were jobs? Lots of people who felt too inferior, too lowly, to give it a shot, might have had a chance after all, but there’s no way the government mail or paid political announcements can undo what a lifetime has taught jobless folks with inferiority complexes: you’re just not good enough, and you won’t ever be good enough so get back to the ghetto or the homeless shelter rotation you’ve worked out, and leave those who are worthy alone.
What if the task tossed to you is something more than securing a run of the mill job? What if it’s an amazing responsibility or opportunity, and the only thing standing between you and it is your inferiority complex? You have to fight the inferiority thing tooth and nail to give yourself a chance. What if Mary had sung in the presence of the angel or messenger, “My soul does magnify the Lord, for God has come to me and called on me in my lowliness, and while I’m deeply touched I’m gonna have to sing, Uhm, no. Find someone stronger emotionally–someone a little older, say 15 or 16; those girls are really smart! Mr. Angel, I know that you know that God knew I’d say no when being presented with this frightening, but awe-inspiring opportunity. If God ever sends another Anointed One, be sure to have me called on. I’m seeing this healer called Dr. Philip, and in a few years much of the inferiority could be gone. I might be able to say yes then.”
We create a healthier world when we raise children to grow up believing that they are capable and empowered. Feelings of inferiority really can cripple people and families and clans and communities obviously causing them not even to try to do what they might be able to do with the right kind of encouragement. You see, an inferiority complex is synonymous with self-disqualification, and often by virtue of family structure or dysfunction the companion disqualification of others closest to us from achievement or success or simple self-satisfaction most likely will result.
Let’s remember this about dealing with inferiority: the invitation is the authorization. Being tapped for some great task supersedes inferiority–not that you can instantly get rid of it if it’s been with you all your life as I said earlier but that you must cast it aside in order to do the great thing that lies before you. Sadly, your success is no guarantee that your sense of inferiority will disappear, but despite it you may reach your potential.
- When I lived in Baltimore I heard often about the virtual miracles performed by the magnificent pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Ben Carson. He came from a single parent home in the hood. Black kid. School was hard for him. He had no future did he? Wouldn’t he certainly be on the street corners in West Baltimore selling crack before he hit his teens? Well, thanks to his mother and others who believed in him, people who pushed him to battle feelings of inferiority and who stuck with him, he’s one of the most widely respected physicians in the world today. At the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine his official title has evolved to this: Professor of Neurosurgery, Oncology, Plastic Surgery and Pediatrics.
- Susan Boyle kept her glorious voice a secret half of her life because she thought she was too common to be much of a success and that the brain damage she experienced early in life would eventually break her down even if she should ever begin rising to the top. She took a risk, a wild and far out risk on one of the perform-and-humiliate-yourself-in-front-of-judges-who-have-no-talent-at-all television shows. “I had a dream that life would be,” she sang, “so different from this hell I’m living,” and the dream came true for her if not for the character who originally sang the song in “Les Miserables.”
No one is ever again going to be asked to birth and raise Jesus of Nazareth, so, ladies, you don’t have to worry about that one. Thank goodness Jesus was born, and thank goodness he lived his life as divinely directed, not as others told him he had to live, what he had to do. We have such spiritual grounding from Jesus and such a grand vision of how life should be, how life could be.
Tibetan Buddhist mothers at this very moment, though, are wondering as their babies are born if their particular son might be the one the spirit of the Dalai Lama will inhabit when the present one can no longer fulfill his role. The discovery process is complex, but one of those boys, or one yet to be born, will be the next Dalai Lama–maybe the one who can help the Tibetan Buddhists reclaim their geographical home. I can tell you that these mothers, most of them living in very humble settings, will shed their inferiority and become stage mothers in a heartbeat to try to have the group who finds the next Dalai Lama already waiting for them within a male child in their home.
You may have heard Dr. Sharon Watkins preaching to brand new President Barak Obama and brand new Vice President Joe Biden and a few of their closest family members and friends filling, literally, the National Cathedral. Dr. Watkins is Executive Minister of the Disciples of Christ denomination and a very gifted preacher, one of the ministers, it is said, from whom the now battered President Barak Obama seeks clergy advice when he feels the need for that.
In her sermon, Dr. Watkins told this story. It’s an old Cherokee tale, and I pass it on to you today as either a reminder or a fresh thought for you to ponder.
An old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside all people.
“My son, the battle is between 2 ‘wolves’ inside us all.
One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
The grandson was perplexed and finally asked his grandfather: ‘Which wolf wins?’
The grandfather replied simply, ‘The one you feed.’”
Mary had a baby. Mary had a baby. He grew up and was able to teach us which wolf to feed. Amen.