Heroes and _______

The insightful and honest spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, was forever tormented by the desire for popular acceptance and acclaim. He even fantasized about how to "preach the gospel in such a way that people are made to believe that nobody had thought of that before" (Genesee Diary, 65).

Nouwen is one of my favorites because he helps me to see my insecurities. He once felt the weight of his own so much that he spent seven months in a Trappist monastery in an attempt to escape from his fame-lust; to find "a quiet stream underneath the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of [his] little world" (Genesee Diary, 14). While in the monastery, he worked on their assembly line which produced 15,000 loaves of raisin bread ("Monk's Bread") each week. Consider this journal entry about an observation he made:

"Theodore found a little piece of metal between the thousands of raisins he pushed through the raisin washing machine. He showed it to me. It looked as sharp as a razor blade. Well, someone eating his raisin bread is saved from a bleeding stomach, thanks to Theodore, who will never hear a grateful word for it. That is the drawback of preventative medicine" (Genesee Diary, 112).

For someone like Nouwen, not hearing a grateful word is a drawback. This little disappointment of his seems ridiculous in light of the great save made by Theodore, and I must ask, How could someone be so callously self-centered? Yet doing the right thing was far less valuable or attractive to Nouwen than doing the right thing and being applauded for it.

I think this same temptation applies to many of us regardless of where we work. For example, perhaps you dream of fixing a problem in the advertising world through heroic and supra-creative efforts as a copy-writer or photographer. Obviously we need visionaries who are willing to go against the flow like this, but do your dreams of accolades and promotions and awards over-shadow the importance of the work itself?

Nouwen interpreted the raisin incident as someone with a messianic complex. He struggled with Theodore's small act going unnoticed just as you and I often experience tension when a superhero's identity is unknown. We want to believe that Spider-Man is altruistic and needs no recognition, but we also love the moments when the average Mary Jane is about to see who's behind all of these good deeds.

Theodore, on the other hand, didn't long to be recognized in this way. He found more value in making good bread than in heroically avoiding dangerous bread.

Here are two points, as I see them.

1. Both heroism and prevention are necessary. We need heroes who fix as well as sharp-eyed servants who prevent. The challenge is for us to recognize the importance of both, and that neither should be done for self-centered reasons.

2. There are many problems in popular advertising that call for gutsy, ingenious heroes to address. But there are also many good elements that require someone to run faithfully, year after year. These folks may need to extract the occasional metal shard but their main focus is not on repair but on the continual production of beneficial goods and services.


Real Live Preacher June 11, 2008 at 12:16 PM  

Hi there,

Gordon Atkinson with the High Calling. My first time here...I think. I've been reading a lot of blogs. Man, this is good work. I will definitely be back. Look for me to feature this piece at the High Calling Blogs site later this week. I'll email you.

Sam Van Eman June 11, 2008 at 5:03 PM  

Thanks, Gordon. Very kind words.

Kay Martin August 1, 2008 at 2:06 PM  

I read Nouwen's books and articles regularly to keep myself grounded. His transparency and storytelling skill help me seek the more of God even when I am at my lowest.

His words have helped me make peace with my humanness; and God's delight that I am human and vulnerable.

Your blog has enlighted me in the pressures of those of you in the advertising world. I will pray for more like you to be influencers in your field.

Sam Van Eman August 3, 2008 at 11:01 PM  

First, thank you for the encouragement and for your prayers. While I don't produce ads, I get to speak to many folks who are either heading into this field or working in it already, and my own request is that God will bring out the potential prophet in each of them. I have to believe that Kingdom change is possible.

Second, I can easily agree with you that Nouwen's "words have helped me make peace with my humanness...." I'm not so sure he experienced this peace himself, but I'm personally grateful for God's work through him.

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