When I was six years old, I temporarily quit ballet and took up figure skating for the sole purpose of having the stage (or in that case, rink) to myself. I hated blending in with a dozen other girls wearing matching costumes, doing the exact same moves. I wanted all eyes on me – only me.
From an early age, I knew I wanted to be famous. I participated in every talent show, auditioned for every play, entered every contest. I wanted to excel at everything, and hated when someone else received recognition for something I worked equally hard to accomplish. I even resented my parents for naming me Sarah Elizabeth, the “It” name of the eighties, and one I shared with dozens of other girls in my school. How could I possibly stand out if I had such a boring, common name? No one would remember it!
First-name recognition was the reason I started writing under the name Sarahbeth when I became a weekly columnist for my campus newspaper. “Are you Sarahbeth?” was my new favorite question: no last name required. Of course, living in Yankee territory, double-barreled first names do not easily roll off most people’s tongues, and the majority of people I encountered preferred to shorten it to Sarah in casual conversation. Plan failed.
It was Christianity that helped me reach that level of humility where I realized I am just a speck in the vast, unfathomable universe. After all, I worshiped a God who shed his divine privileges to live as a poor man in a society where he could have benefited greatly by using them for his own gain. Whatever gifts and talents I have to offer should be for the betterment of the world and of others, not my own self-seeking glory. Using my gifts should be a demonstration of thankfulness to the creator who gave them to me. Understanding this, I was able to accept living as Beth; a name I realized was a much better fit, despite being “common.” I came to a radical understanding that I could actually make this name my own – and it made going to Starbucks a hell of a lot easier.
I still want to be an influential writer, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But my motives are different now. I credit Christianity for helping me rearrange my priorities, so I care more about my words touching and influencing people than being a household name, or seeing one of my stories turned into a movie (though I can’t lie, that would be incredibly awesome). Humility is simply more attractive than pride. Humility says to others, “Let me put your needs first and give you my full attention.” Pride, on the other hand – always seeking opportunities to put myself out there for the sake of putting myself out there – gets annoying. I don’t miss the competition I created in my head, seeing other people’s talents as a threat to my own. How sad that former way of life was – how exhausting.
I don’t mean to imply that Judaism couldn’t teach me healthy humility and help reorganize my priorities; it certainly could. I guess it helped to have a visual reminder, and that reminder was Jesus on a cross demonstrating the ultimate self-sacrificing, humiliating, and degrading act of love with absolutely no possibility of self-gain. I really needed to understand what that meant.
But now, returning to the Faith vs. Culture collision, I often see the exact opposite of humility: I hear about restaurants offering discounts to customers who are seen praying before a meal (does that mean they will hold off prayer, letting the food get cold, until a server comes around to take notice?). I’ve experienced judgment for not raising my hands high enough during worship, because my form of worship doesn’t involve those gestures, and I don’t feel I need them. That pride I worked so hard to overcome comes back with fiery fierceness in the form of “humble-bragging”: at least I’m not jumping around waving my arms like Susie over there. Who does she think she is, showing off like that? I’m the one doing it right, sitting here quietly without drawing attention to myself…
Most ironically, I pride myself on having such keen self-awareness of my flaws. But hey, I’m a work in progress. We all are.