How many of us are fans of the old 60’s TV show, “Gilligan’s Island.” I remember, as a child running home to watch the show. We all know the opening song. And yes, we can remember the characters as well.
There is Gilligan. He represents sloth. The skipper too, he was wrath or anger. Ginger exuded lust. Thurston Howell the third symbolized greed. Lovey, Ms. Howell was gluttony. The Professor was smart but symbolized pride and finally Mary Ann, my personal favorite was envy, always playing second fiddle to everyone else. Watch the show, and you will see all of the sins absolutely destroying each other. When they are close to being saved, Gilligan’s laziness thwarts their efforts. The professor, somehow able to make a radio out of coconuts can’t seem to patch the boat? He tended to overanalyze everything. In a fun way, Gilligan’s Island subtly told us that a lack of character led the shipwrecked passengers to a never-ending cycle of despair and disappointment.
The only thing that would have saved our ship wrecked fools lay within them, but they totally lacked it. And that was character.
So maybe, we are all on an island, trying to save our families and ourselves, but we keep destroying ourselves. Consider our leaders in Washington. Their own hubris, envy and indolence ends up doing more damage to their efforts than any external enemy could.
We are moving away from faith, which focuses our gratitude on God to a celebration of the self, which says, “Nobody is better than me.”
Between 1948 and 1954, psychologists asked more than 10,000 adolescents whether they considered themselves to be very important person. At that point, 12 % said yes. The same question was revisited in 1989, and this time it wasn’t 12 % but 80% of boys and 77% of girls. Did you know that there is a narcissism test? It measures the degree to which people are focused only on themselves. The median score has risen 30% in the last two decades. A whopping 93% of young people agree with the statement, “I am an extraordinary person” and “I like to look at my body.” Our kids are getting bombarded with lines like, “trust yourself,” “You are special,” “Be true to yourself, as if the self is the sole arbiter of right and wrong.”
Everything from Pixar and Disney Movies to college commencement speeches is constantly telling our children how wonderful they are. One recent speech to the graduating senior class was laced with the same clichés: Follow your passion. Don’t accept limits. Chart your own course.” I wonder, what is left of the box, when everyone is told to think outside of the box? It is not our children’s fault for this shift, but rather the culture and the lessons they are learning from us. This shift should be laid at our feet.
Along with the rise in self-admiration, there has been a tremendous increase in the quest for fame. Fame used to rank low as a life’s ambition for most people. In a 1976 survey that asked people to list their life’s goals, fame ranked fifteenth out of sixteenth. By 2007, 51% of young people reported that being famous was one of their top personal goals. In one study, middle school girls were asked with whom they would most like to have dinner. Jennifer Lopez came in first, Jesus came in second and Paris Hilton third. Here is something amazing. When girls were asked which of the following jobs they would like to have. Nearly twice as many said they’d rather be a celebrity’s personal assistant, like Justin Bieber’s than the president of Harvard.
What’s the matter with quietly living a life of humility and responsibility? George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch celebrates a character, Dorothea who was never famous, yet somehow lived a life that mattered. This is Eliot’s final word on her, “Her full nature … spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
It’s one of the most beautiful passages in literature, and it encapsulates what a meaningful life is about. It’s not about being famous, but about contributing to something beyond the self, in whatever humble form that may take.
In her hit book, Eat, Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote that God manifests himself through “my own voice from within my own self…God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.” No demands…. no humility. According to Gilbert, whatever I think is Godly. “Whatever I do is Godly, because God is me exactly as I am.” Bunk!!!
Without the language and compass of morality, we become selfishness, and use other people as a means to get things for ourself. We become prideful and see ourself as superior to everybody else. We ignore and rationalize our own imperfections and inflate our own virtues. And we get angry whenever our needs are not met. In fact, it leads to all of the seven deadly sins.
In Hebrew, the word for sin is Cheit. It means to miss the mark. Its roots are in archery. A cheit is when you miss the mark. And the correct response is to feel guilt. A person who feels no guilt for their transgressions is a socio-path. Guilt is not the enemy, here. It keeps us honest and on the right path.
Wasn’t it a sin to kill 17 students in Parkland, Florida? Or was that just something that we didn’t like? No…it was a sin and we need to call it out for what it is.
If we are going to rebuild our character and our culture, we need to start here and now. Respectfully, I’d like to offer a few tips.
- Know your weaknesses.
- When ethics and other values conflict, choose ethics.
- Treat all people with kindness and understanding “that they, like you, are created in the image of God.”
- Be fair.
- Be courageous.
- Be honest
- Be grateful
- Practice self-control.
- Exercise common sense.
- Admit when you have done wrong, seek forgiveness and don’t rationalize bad behavior.
Find a hero to emulate.
Allow me to tell you about one of my moral heroes. He was not famous…. he did not write any books, he did not reason a new theology for the Jewish people but in George Eliot’s words, the growing good in the world rests on this man, who lies in an unvisited tomb. Rabbi Leo Baeck was an undistinguished Reform rabbi in Berlin before the Holocaust. He spent his life teaching, preaching and comforting. When war was on the horizon, and he was almost seventy years old, he was offered the pulpit of the largest synagogue in Cincinnati, Ohio. But he knew what was coming and refused to leave his congregation and community. He traveled tirelessly to London to attempt to save some of his children by having them sent to Great Britain. Ultimately he was arrested and sent to Theresienstadt. There by day, he had to drag a garbage cart thorough the streets. But at night, he gave illegal lectures on Jewish philosophy, Jewish history and Jewish literature. He offered hope to the hopeless, comfort to those bereft and faith to those who most needed it. He wrote on one of the scraps of paper: “a mensch remains a mensch even in Theresienstadt.” Not fame…. not arrogance…. character.
General George Marshall challenged us: The measure of life, after all is not its duration, but its devotion.” Modern Maturity magazine chides us with: “The world is full of two types of people: the givers and the takers. The takers eat well – but the givers sleep well.” One of my teachers quoted Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav who wrote, “Your education is a failure no matter how learned you are – if it has failed to open your heart. What is necessary for us in life is not to have a symbol, but to be a symbol.”
I have a little exercise; I’d like you to try with me. Whenever you say a prayer or make a comment about yourself, do a search and replace, as if you were writing on your computer. Search for every time you use the word “me or I” and replace it with “we or us.” If we do that simple task, we just might overcome the self-centeredness of our era.
We are all on Gilligan’s Island. We can be lazy like Gilligan, impatient and angry like the Skipper; we can be arrogant as the Professor, envious like Maryanne and lustful as Ginger. We can be greedy like Mr. Howell and gluttonous like Ms. Howell. But there is hope. Did you know that the theme song for the show changes during the show? The opening credits have one set of verses while the closing credits have different verses. (I know what your thinking…. I have to get out more). (So join us here each week my friends…) But it’s true. We can change the lyrics of our lives. Abram can be reborn and become Abraham. Sarai can find a new path and become Sarah. We can be set free…We can get off the island….we can free the captive. How? Repentance, prayer, and finally, giving of oneself to overcome egotism.
What do we need now, more than ever? Character. It can get us off the island and make us free.