Everybody likes getting an award. We all like a little recognition now and then, holding the spotlight for our “15 minutes of fame.” President Obama got another taste of that yesterday when he was unexpectedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Instantly, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, pundits and the man on the street all began lining up, debating whether the president deserved it, taking pot shots at him and at each other. And there’s the president, in the center of the fire pit, dancing on the hot coals, trying to figure out how to handle this inconvenient honor. With all the uproar, it really makes you think: maybe there are some honors not worth having.
As I sat in front of the TV watching the talking-heads on the various news channels argue endlessly about this latest sensation, a few observations became evident.
1. Praise and recognition from others is ultimately empty and worthless. Yeah, we all like the spotlight once in a while, the pat on the back; it can be good for our egos. But the most frequent argument heard after the Nobel Committee’s announcement was that President Obama hadn’t done anything to deserve the Prize — at least not yet. And for many conservatives, it made the Committee look ridiculous, and the Prize itself meaningless. As one-sided as that perspective may be, it does accurately represent a core truth: praise from other people is essentially valueless. People are fickle. They can withdraw their respect just as quickly as they gave it. Depending on how we effect them at any given moment, people can love us or hate us, and they can move from one extreme to the other with remarkable agility. I think of holy week in the New Testament as a perfect case in point. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, the streets lined with people shouting “Hosanna” and throwing down their coats and palm branches before him in adoration and expectation. Five days later, they’re screaming “Crucify him!” at the tops of their voices, and lining the streets once again to watch him — this time on his way to Golgotha, carrying a cross on his back. All those palm fronds were pretty meaningless at that moment. As an old seminary friend used to say all too often, “They’ll praise you on Palm Sunday and crucify you on Good Friday.” Striving for short-lived esteem and honor in other people’s eyes is just not worth the effort. Those “15 minutes” end all too quickly, and when they’re over we’re usually no better off than before — and sometimes we’re worse.
2. Prizes can put you in the uncomfortable position of having to live up to other people’s expectations. President Obama, for better or for worse, now has the burden of having to live up to this high honor bestowed on him. He’s got to perform. He’s got to achieve great things or risk future condemnation for being a great disappointment and failure. And this can have the unanticipated effect of causing him to adjust his coarse or change his existing agenda to accommodate those expectations. This could be true for any of us. Suddenly we’ll find our priorities shifting, our objectives being modified ever so slightly to fall in line with our new honored status. Unconsciously, we can begin acting in ways we think would justify the prize, to prove that we deserved it. Worse, it can throw us into self-doubt, causing us to question our own motives. Are we doing something because we want to, because it’s in line with our goals and purpose, or are we now doing it to garner further attention? And Lord help us if the award was given out of manipulation in a deliberate effort to cause us to act differently. As the president already recognized, the Nobel Peace Prize has sometimes been given “as a means to give momentum to a set of causes … as a call to action,” as encouragement and incentive to behave in a certain way. Images of puppeteers and marionettes come to mind.
3. Prizes can incite jealousy and active competitiveness in others who may try to sabotage us. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen this in our political arenas. Some Republicans are doing anything they can to make Obama fail — in every area, at any cost. While some may be driven by ideological differences, much of the resistance is motivated by sheer spite and animosity. They’ve become obstructionists, going to extreme efforts to hinder any progress or success. As Florida Congressman Alan Grayson recently complained, if Obama cured world hunger, Republicans would blame him for over-population; if Obama were able to bring about world peace, Republicans would blame him for destroying the defense industry. Nothing brings out competitiveness and resistance in petty people like a little recognition. And although it may be true that if they’re shooting at you, you must be doing the right thing, no one needs any extra unnecessary obstacles to achieving their goals.
All this tells me that winning prizes can be a dangerous thing, and doing anything for the sake of — or as the result of — public recognition and award can be very destructive. Does this mean we should shun honors at any cost? Of course not. But it highlights the necessity of not letting those honors go to your head or influence you in any way. It’s the old “you cannot serve two masters” situation. You cannot follow your higher calling or fulfill your life’s real purpose and pursue fame and glory at the same time. Public recognition may come as a result of your great work, but it is a trap, and we need to carry that trophy with caution.
Instead of temporary glory, we ought to pursue a life of true significance, to make a positive difference in the world around us. We should focus on what’s really important, not what’s popular. And that’s as simple as loving God and helping others. Then our reward will be a deep sense of personal fulfillment and satisfaction, a feeling of purpose, contentment and well-being that lasts well beyond a measly 15 minutes. Those kinds of pursuits genuinely benefit us and those around us — and carry forward into the life to come. And I’ll take that over a Nobel any day.
“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him. And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for what is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:13-15)