Arthur Miller’s famous play Death of a Salesman features a pitiful character named Willy Loman. His story is a cautionary tale of a life that’s hollow and sad because what matters most to him is to be well liked and respected. According to Willy, appearing successful matters more than being successful; appearing kind, generous, and virtuous matters more than actually being kind, generous, and virtuous; and appearing to have one’s act together matters more than having one’s act together.
Rather than living authentically, Willy hides his true self behind a mask. To be sure, this career salesman is selling a product—but it isn’t a vacation or a house or a set of knives. Rather, it’s a false image of himself. He is the quintessential poser, a shell of a man with no real friends, intimacy, joy, or purpose. He is a tragic prototype of what Henry David Thoreau alluded to when he said that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And what’s worse is that Willy’s hollow way of life is something carried on by his younger son.
In the Bible, the scribes and Pharisees provide us with a tragic parallel. Like Willy, these religious professionals are obsessed with appearing holy, righteous, and pure while being none of these things. They say prayers and fast, not as a means of connecting with the living God, but to be seen and praised by men.
For the scribes and Pharisees, the most important thing in life was to be well respected by others. Theirs is a tragic counterfeit of the good life, a form of stage acting through boisterous and public displays of piety. These demonstrations are undergirded not by the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, but rather by a grouchy, judgy, relationally bereft, radically insecure, spiritually juvenile, and emotionally stunted private reality. While giving an appearance of virtue on the outside, the religious poser in the scribes and Pharisees is broken and empty on the inside. And, sometimes, so are we.
This longing we all have to receive affirmation from others is tricky, because it originates from a good place. While the longing for approval can manifest in dysfunctional ways, the source of the longing is our identity as people made in the image of God, whose very essence and nature is to receive praise.
This longing we all have to receive affirmation from others is tricky, because it originates from a good place.
The image of God in us is the reason why we desire more healthy forms of affirmation and praise: a pat on the back for a job well done, an affectionate “I love you” from someone we cherish, or the words “I’m so proud of you!” from Mom or Dad.
Once when our youngest daughter was 6 years old, she asked if I wanted to watch her read a book silently. So there I sat for several minutes, quietly watching her as she thumbed through the pages without a sound. Then, I exclaimed how proud I was of her for being such an outstanding reader of books. Her longing for a paternal blessing—for a “Well done!” from her earthly father—was merely an echo of her deeper longing for the same from her heavenly Father. This desire in a child is right, good, lovely, and shouldn’t be denied.
It’s true of us all. Whether we’re aware of it or not, each of us lives with a deep craving for positive, life-giving verdicts to overrule the negative ones pronounced over us from the outside and from within. So what happens when parents shame us, when peers exclude or tease us, when colleagues and bosses and spouses express disappointment in us, when our social media posts don’t receive the “likes” we had hoped? Our impulse is to run for cover, shield ourselves from condemnation and shame, put up a defense, and reestablish ourselves as worthy. We want to be significant and thought well of. And so, we live thirsty for benediction—for a good word spoken over us.
I once saw an interview in which the interviewer asked Mariah Carey why she, a very successful and celebrated musician, still struggled with feelings of emptiness and insecurity. Her answer was that she could hear a thousand praises and one criticism, and the one would overrule the many.
With this honest answer, she put words to what all of us experience. When a text message comes in that reads, “We need to talk,” our impulse is to assume criticism is on the way. Our hearts naturally assume that we have been found out and the sender of the text—based on whatever she or he now knows about us—may leave or forsake us. This can be true of bosses, colleagues, neighbors, friends, or even family members. We think to ourselves, If they knew everything about me, or even if they knew just a little bit more about how I really am, surely they would lose respect for me.
Perhaps this is why psychiatrist Karl Menninger said that if he could convince his patients their sins were forgiven, 75 percent of them would no longer require psychiatric care. And similarly, the famous musician James Taylor once said in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, “Ten critics can savage me, but I’ll be fine as long as every once in a while, someone like Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney says, ‘Keep going, kid.’”
When we lean on the praise of others—whether in a grumpy religious way or in an emotionally needy way—when we feel we need applause from other people to prevent an emotional breakdown or a crisis of identity, we are trying to fill an infinite space with finite goods. The truth musicians like Mariah Carey and James Taylor must face (along with everyone else, for that matter) is that all human applause has a limited shelf life. Eventually, all memory of us and of any praiseworthy things we offered to the world will be completely forgotten.
Put another way, the praise of others—such as Willy Loman’s desperate quest to be well liked—though originating with the image of God, can also be distorted into an idol that can never satisfy our emptiness.
This ability to become self-forgetful was fueled and sustained by the daily voice of their heavenly Father.
We’d be better off pursuing what Henri Nouwen called “downward mobility.” Nouwen, who spent several years writing, speaking, and being celebrated as a teacher at esteemed universities including Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale, forsook his ascending celebrity at its peak. At the urging of his friend Jean Vanier, he instead spent the rest of his life pastoring L’Arche, a small community of mentally disabled men and women. Nouwen’s rationale for this radical “downward” move was as follows:
Scripture reveals … that real and total freedom is only found through downward mobility … The divine way is indeed the downward way … [Jesus] moved from power to powerlessness, from greatness to smallness, from success to failure, from strength to weakness, from glory to ignominy. The whole life of Jesus of Nazareth … resisted upward mobility.
For the Christian, greatness is not found in being well liked and respected by others. Nor is it gained in striving to reverse negative verdicts or in making a name for ourselves. Instead, greatness is found as we become more boastful about Jesus and more shy about ourselves.
For our contemporary context, this means that we need fewer “selfies” and more God- and other-centered endeavors. As my friend Tim Keller has said, nothing makes us more miserable or less interesting than self-absorption. In other words, the more we build our lives around being well liked and respected by others, the less well liked and respected we will be. Conversely, the more we forget about ourselves, the more likely we will be remembered.
The missionary Amy Carmichael provides another shining example of this. As Ms. Carmichael’s books, writings, and biographies attest, hers was a life focused not on being well liked and respected by others, but on being poured out for others. After she died, when family members and friends went through her belongings, they discovered a vast collection of photographs. As they thumbed through, they were awestruck by the sheer number of people whose lives had been enriched by hers. They also noticed she wasn’t in a single shot.
Zero selfies. Instead, her whole life was a picture of love poured out for Jesus and others.
How do people like Amy Carmichael and Henri Nouwen become so free? How do they find strength to renounce the craving to be well liked and respected by others, and to instead pour their lives out in love for them? I dare say that this ability to become self-forgetful, this ability to divert their eyes toward God and neighbor, was fueled and sustained by the daily voice of their heavenly Father and ours—whose love through Jesus is always unfailing, always secure, and always triumphant over negative verdicts—saying to them, “Keep going, kid.”
The way up is the way down. When we walk the path of downward mobility, we are lifted up by the “Well done” of our Father in heaven. What could be better than this?
Illustrations by Janne Iivonen