Achievement Beats Celebrity
The death of actor and campaigner Christopher Reeve this week reminds us of just how important it is to recognize achievement over mere celebrity.
Reeve found fame playing the movie role of Superman in the 1980s. He brought a refreshing, human and sometimes humorous twist to an iconic character.
As a young man, he had always been the adventurous type, with an athletic build and a desire to live life to the full. A keen equestrian, his future was pulled under a cloud when he was thrown from a horse during competition in Virginia.
Confined by his injuries to a wheelchair and breathing only with the aid of a machine most of the time, he considered suicide. 'Maybe we should just let me go,' he said to his wife not long after his accident.
Later, he became a symbol of hope for paraplegic people the world over.
When most people think of Reeve today, they don't so much reflect on the celebrity he gained through acting; they remember his unflagging desire to pioneer a new path of recovery for himself and for others in his situation.
Of course, he had the means to avail himself of cutting edge treatments, but he also spent a great deal of time and money promoting the cause of the paraplegic community as a whole.
His commitment earned him the respect and gratitude of researchers and medicos, who appreciated the hopeful attitude he often passed on to them.
The fact that we'd rather honour selfless achievement over mere fame is a reflection of our nature.
Christianity teaches that humankind is made in the image of a wise, benevolent, just and, above all, loving Father. We were made to inhabit a special place of favour under God, overseeing his natural creation and developing its awesome potential.
Within our wiring, God placed something that no other creature on earth possesses – a drive for heroism and significance.
You don't find monkeys bungee jumping, or gorillas scaling Mount Everest, or chimps parachuting from planes at 20,000 feet.
Only human beings have a desire to transcend their natural limitations, to take risks in order to make a mark and be remembered.
What's more, only human beings long to make a difference to the world. Whether it's through making some breakthrough for science, or defining a new point of excellence in our profession, or giving our time and money for charity, or even raising great kids, we long to leave a legacy.
We are wired for significance through achievement.
In this, we are like God himself. Throughout the Bible, God revealed himself as someone who thinks in epic, heroic terms.
The God of the Bible aligns himself with the underdog; he exalts the lowly and brings success to the little guy, in defiance of the odds.
He takes risks, too. The incarnation was the greatest risk of all.
According to the Bible, God the Son took on human form to rescue us from ourselves, to redeem our place in the Kingdom of heaven. As St. John put it, 'he came unto his own, but his own received him not.'
This was a massive risk. Human beings are creatures of free will, with the capacity to accept or refuse any gift, no matter how lovingly it is given.
The sinful, fallen bent in our nature makes us more likely to walk away from God than to accept him, even when he comes to teach us profound things about love and to perform amazing acts of mercy.
From a human standpoint – and we must remember that Jesus was human – the cross was a heroic act. The gospels reflect that Jesus had every chance to avoid it.
On many occasions, he prophesied how he would die – and why. His disciples couldn't understand what he was saying. 'What's all this talk about dying?' they thought, 'He's so full of life!'
In the last week of his life, Jesus' every word and action seems to have been designed to bring on a confrontation with the authorities and eventually hasten his demise. All along, he was pursuing the cross.
'No man takes my life from me,' he said. 'I lay it down willingly.' He was no victim of circumstance: taking this road was his choice.
Jesus must have thought: 'What if nobody ever remembers this moment? What if my death is forgotten, my life and all that I've done simply buried in history? What if people don't accept this salvation which, for me, comes at such a high price?'
Today, the life and death of Christ form a standard against which other human achievements are measured.
They show us that achievement often comes on the other side of adversity; that heroism is usually born in the fires of trial; that the world is changed not by celebrity-seekers but by people who take self-denying risks to improve the lot of others.
In a culture that is so besotted with the vanity of celebrity, so taken with the idea of fame for fame's sake, it's healthy for us to remember that celebrity itself does little to change the world for good.
Christopher Reeve reminds us again that self-sacrifice and service, combined with a voice of hope, are the way to real and lasting influence.
© Mal Fletcher 2004
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