Who do you think you are?
I hit a lot of traffic and was late to a wedding rehearsal in Philadelphia, and when I arrived at the church there were no parking spaces anywhere. There were about 20 people including the bride and groom waiting for me inside, and my phone had died. I was getting frantic, and then I saw a spot very close to the church, and I was like, Thank you God, and I skillfully and quickly parallel parked. I ran into the church, and asked them to forgive me for being late and for not having had time to change into my clerical clothes to look like a priest, and then we did the rehearsal. When it was over about an hour later, I went back to my car and found a cop who was just finishing writing me a ticket. He pointed to a handicapped space sign that I hadn’t seen when I parked, and said pretty sarcastically, “Who do you think you are?”. I was about to try to explain, maybe throw the ‘priest card’ out there, but it was clearly of no use, and he shoved the ticket into my hands. “Have a nice night,” he said. I looked at the ticket. It was $400. Who did I think I was….well, definitely not someone who could afford a $400 ticket, and I felt pretty small and terribly guilty. I also tried to tell myself that I'm not such a bad guy, here I was doing this wedding all the way in Philadelphia, sacrificing my weekend, etc.. Who did I wish I was at that moment? Maybe someone important, not like one of the 'little' people.
I heard an interview the other day where President Obama was asked what he would miss most about being president. He didn’t hesitate to answer. “Air Force One. It’s always on time, they never lose my luggage, I don’t have to take my shoes off before I get on, and they take good care of me on that plane.” It’s one of the biggest perks that you get to have when you are president, but there are lots of others. I mean, they play Hail to the Chief whenever you enter a room… that’s pretty cool. I suspect after a few years—certainly after two terms—you’d get used to all the special treatment, and you probably begin to think you deserve it. I’m sure the transition to being a former president will be challenging for him.
Watching the debates, and considering the choices in front of us in a few weeks, I have been thinking about what kind of person makes it to that important office, and what kind of a person I would prefer. First and foremost you are supposed to be a public servant: it isn’t really supposed to be about you, but about us. Helping us all to live together in peace and freedom and prosperity. But to get to those stratospheric heights of power, to be the highest of public servants, you have to have a ‘healthy’ ego, a clear sense of who you are, and a pretty thick skin to endure the inevitable criticism. And I think that the job naturally attracts narcissists.
The word comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a handsome youth who falls in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Since the time of the Greeks, a narcissist has been defined as someone who is extremely self-centered, arrogant and ‘perfect’; who brags and exaggerates their achievements; who seeks self-importance by diminishing, debasing, or degrading somebody else; who is hypersensitive to criticism or insults; who detests those who do not admire them or agree with them; who has trouble expressing remorse or gratitude; who has difficulty feeling compassion or empathy towards others. I think it is a rare candidate for president who doesn’t exhibit some of those qualities, and there are some who seem to have a lot of them. How can you truly serve the public if you are burdened with those issues of narcissism? How to sort out your narcissistic needs from the needs of the country?
I think about the Pope, who is in something of a similar position. He has great power within the Church, and indeed in the world. He doesn’t have much of an army, except the Swiss Guards, but his influence is enormous. And think about the perks and temptations of his office. In some ways they are greater than that of a president: he is more like a king. He serves for life, he doesn’t have to deal with a congress or a supreme court. He has a much more impressive palace to live in, and he can claim to speak for God, making pronouncements that are considered infallible. But at heart, his role is the same: he is meant to be a servant of God, for the people of God. Pope’s aren’t chosen the same way presidents are. But undoubtedly politics are involved, and throughout the history of the papacy there have clearly been some very clear narcissists in the job, which of course contradicts what we are called to be in the Gospel today.
The people Jesus had the most trouble with while He was on earth were the religious narcissists. The Pharisee in the Gospel was a perfect example. He was full of pride, so convinced that he was righteous and better than others. The Pharisee built himself up by diminishing, degrading and debasing that tax collector over there; he had no compassion or empathy for the man and judged him without knowing a single thing about him. Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector to his companions, the Apostles, because he wanted to point out their own narcissism. They had rivalries and arguments over which one would be the greatest in the coming Kingdom. It wasn’t until they saw Jesus on the cross willing to go into total oblivion as the ultimate public servant that they then lost their narcissistic tendencies and became selfless and meek like John the Baptist who said, “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.”
There are still plenty of narcissists in the Church today. Some of them are priests, bishops, and 'ordinary people'. They often call out the sins of everyone else, and care more about being right than loving others. But true followers of Jesus always exhibit humility and serve others.
We are blessed to have a Pope who tries best as he can to follow the Gospel of humility. Like the tax collector, who beats his breast and asks for God’s mercy, Pope Francis answers the question, ‘who do you think you are?’ with almost everything he does: I am a servant of God. It has been so inspiring to watch him abandon the papal palace, the fancy meals, the big limousines. So inspiring to see him reach out to the poor, the abandoned, the lonely, the sick and the dying-- the little people, who can’t afford to be narcissistic.
As I stood there on the sidewalk in Philadelphia holding my very expensive parking ticket, I was upset, angry, and even depressed. I was tempted to be a little narcissistic at the moment. I mean, if President Obama accidentally parked in a handicapped spot, would they give him a ticket?
I thought about an elderly woman I had met a few years ago when I was working on a film in Brooklyn. (You may know that when I am not here on Sundays celebrating Mass, I make movies and teach filmmaking in Connecticut.). It was a special day for me because I was asked to play a small part in a film my friend was directing, and I was going to be acting with Christopher Walken. It wasn’t a big stretch for me: I was playing a priest in a nursing home. But that day I was one of the designated principal actors, like ‘star for the day’. It was just Chris and me, and I had my own dressing room, makeup artist, and was treated with a special parking spot.
The director, my friend Myles greeted me when I arrived and thanked me for being there, and brought me over to Chris Walken, complimenting us both on what he was sure was going to be a fantastic scene of acting.
I was pampered over in make-up and wardrobe, I was sequestered alone in my own dressing room, and I had people coming in to check on me, to make sure I was happy in every way during the long waits between the times when were shooting the scene. I had all the privileges on set---the attention, the careful respect, the way the crew catered to me, the special chair—all of that.
At one point I was getting a little bored waiting in the dressing room, so I decided to take a walk down a long hallway, and I saw a sign on the wall that read, “Holding”. A young assistant passed by and said, “There’s a bunch of old SAG (Screen Actors Guild) actors in there.” I opened the door—it was kind of a dreary, dumpy room of long tables and metal chairs—and it was filled with elderly men and women: the extras, who were playing elderly men and women in a nursing home. I had seen many of them already on the set, but hadn’t spoken to any of them. I wandered into the room. Some of them were reading books or newspapers, some were speaking quietly to one another, some were ‘resting their eyes’ for a moment, heads and arms on the table. Most of them looked pretty uncomfortable in the hard metal chairs. When I walked in, they all looked up, and I felt like an intruder. “Are you lost?”, one sweet little lady asked. “No,” I said, “I’m just exploring”, and she smiled. It was such a beautiful smile. We began talking a little bit, and as we talked, I saw that all eyes were on us, on me, and the others started chiming in. They wanted to know who the director was—“we’re not allowed to go up and talk to him,” one elderly man said. “How do you know Chris Walken,” another asked. And I began to hear their stories, which most were more than eager to tell: their lives as actors, comediennes—on the stage, in the Catskills, in commercials for television, as extras in films—mind you, most of them could have been my grandparents. Some of the stories were fascinating, and I was having a ball listening to them talk about the glories of their past stardoms.
The elderly lady who asked me if I was lost was named Sophie, and she whispered to me at one point, after I had been there a while, “You know, you’re really not supposed to be here…” and before I had a chance to respond, someone came in to the room to announce that lunch was ready. I accompanied them down the hall and into the elevator to the cafeteria, but when I got there and was standing in line with them for lunch, a very officious young woman came up to me and said, “You shouldn’t be here, “ and she grabbed my arm and accompanied me to the head of the line in front of all the elderly extras. When I realized what she was doing, I was appalled, and immediately I left the line, went to the rear and rejoined my companions. Sophie was standing there. She looked at me and said, “I was a principal actress on a film with Carey Grant It was…wonderful… I’ll never forget what he said to me: ‘Hey kid, did anyone ever tell you you’re gorgeous!’ He was kidding, of course… but… I felt like a queen!” And that same lovely smile came across her face, across the years, a remembrance of the promise of her youth. Then she smiled up at me: “ It’s not so bad being one of the little people!”
Driving back home to Connecticut from Brooklyn, I thought about the strangeness of the day. It was fun being in the movie, but the whole hierarchy of the actors and the crew—the privileges and special attention--was unsettling and uncomfortable, especially because I am really not much of an actor. I’ve worked around movies enough to know about the whole star thing-—how they are catered to---but I guess I never realized how people are treated all down the line. That part was really not fun. As I drove on, I imagined Sophie on the set with Cary Grant, 30 or 40 years ago, radiant, and royally treated. And then I heard her say, again, “It’s not so bad being one of the little people!”
Back in Philadelphia, standing on the sidewalk with the $400 ticket in my hand, I saw the wedding party come suddenly pouring out of the church. Everyone was in a good mood, laughing and talking and even singing a little, on their way to a big noisy rehearsal dinner celebration. I was holding onto my anger, my bit of narcissism. I sighed for a moment, and then told myself, “Apparently today is not about me.”
It’s not just presidents or popes or apostles who are called out of our narcissism; everyone who follows Jesus, who is his companion is called to be a servant. We too must became selfless and meek like John the Baptist. “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
It is only the sinner who can recognize how good God is to each one of us—no need for bragging, self-importance, arrogance; no need to tear others down; no need for special privileges. God’s love is more than enough, and we are meant to share it with everyone we meet.
Who do we think we are? God’s. We are God’s. Enough said.