When Julius Caesar prevailed in the battle of Zela, he did not commission for his biography or the tale of great victory to be written, he did not order statues and monuments of marble and gold to be erected. Instead, he sent a letter to Rome comprised of mere three simple words, – “Veni, vidi, vici” – I came; I saw; I conquered. When Franz Schubert composed his famous Ave Maria, he did not hire a top-notch PR firm to launch a grand marketing campaign, but deemed his work as an unworthy representation of the most sacred event and threw it away. And if his friends would not find and recover it, we would not even know it has ever existed. Nikola Tesla – the brilliant inventor behind so many modern technologies empowering modern life and lifestyle – did not seek fame, recognition and wealth, but instead died penniless in a hotel room in New York City.
These wonderful men are perfect examples of humility. They never boasted about their talents, skills, success, and achievements but rather lived simple lives doing what they loved – creating, conquering, and paving a way to advance human civilization, culture, and sciences. While this may sound beautiful and inspiring, we also know that this is not exactly how things usually work in everyday life. People do like to boast about their success and accomplishments, seek recognition and affirmation about their status and place in society.
Today the Armenian Church celebrates the feast of the Apparition of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem – an ancient Christian feast near and dear to the hearts of Armenians who lived, served and worshiped the Lord in the Holy Land for centuries. Instead of three Scripture readings which we usually have on Sundays, the Church instituted nine readings for this day. The first reading is from the letter of St. Paul to Galatians where he exhorts us not to boast about anything at all except in the life-giving, saving and restoring Holy Cross of the Lord (Gal. 6:14) .
Why do our hearts seek affirmations and recognition from those around us? Why St. Paul and for that matter, the entire Bible and faith, discourage us from doing so and instead invite us to boast only about the Cross?
Chapters 1-2 of the Romans tell us that as children and creations of God, our souls seek God and we have a powerful inner desire to know and serve our Creator. Augustine described this as a God-shaped hole deep in the human soul. Blaise Pascal depicted it as a God-shaped vacuum in the human heart. While our lives may gravitate away from the faith and God, the inner need and desire to serve God never fades away and our souls never stop craving and seeking the divine voice telling us “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mat. 25:23).
When our lives do not serve God we try to silence the need for divine affirmation by seeking recognition in other places, we sense the inner emptiness and try to fill it with validation and approval from people around us. The Holy Bible recognizes and refers to this phenomenon using the Greek term Kenodoxia. Modern English Bibles often translate this term as vainglory, groundless self-esteem, empty pride. But the term literally translated means empty of true glory. In psychology, we know it as insecurity and lack of self-esteem.
Because no amount of human affirmation can satisfy the inner emptiness and fill the God-shaped hole in our souls, we become increasingly desperate and dependent on approval. We lie and mislead ourselves by assuming if we only manage to become more liked, respected and accepted we will feel better and whole. We try to satisfy the thirst for approval by measuring our self-worth through the vain and fake prism and imitation of reality offered by social media. We built a distorted self-image, character and identity based on the number of likes, hearts and positive comments our pictures, posts and videos collect on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. We create completely fake layers within our society and label them as celebrities – people who reflect and embody our desires of approval and affirmation. Our children look up to them and assume if they are thin and slim enough, if they dress well enough, look and act like them, then they will find acceptance and discover their true calling and self-image.
This is a path that leads to self-destruction, increased angst and anxiety, disappointment and despair in our lives. We should be concerned only about pleasing God and our children should build their identities, self-image and self-worth based on their calling and understanding that they are absolutely unique and beautiful creations resembling the true and shining image and likeness of the perfect and immortal God. Therefore, true affirmation and approval can only be found in faith, nurturing and building a relationship with the Savior of our souls.
Let us raise our lives to God and ask our beloved Creator and Father to speak to us clearly so we can understand. Let us beseech Christ – our Lord and Savior to lead us and teach us how to serve him and people in need around us so we too can hear his comforting voice telling us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”