Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2001
New verbal coinings sometimes reveal an aspect of contemporary culture that takes us back to the ancient world. ‘Wannabe’ is just such a word – a descriptor for the (usually) young person who ‘wants to be’ someone else. Most young black Americans, the polls tell us, ‘wannabe’ celebrities of some kind – rock musicians, TV or movie or basketball stars. Currently millions of adolescent girls wannabe the pop ‘sensation’ Britney Spears.
‘Wanting to be’ is probably the major problem of the moment. It is a state of alienation from the self – a sense that the ‘being’ one now has is not worth having, and so must be exchanged for another.
What happens if we relate this to the temptation in the garden of Eden, that place of greatest happiness, where Satan promised ‘you shall be as Gods’. Genesis tells us that we fell for this, and notice here the coincidence of the word ‘fell’. The Fall results from ‘wanting to be’ something other than we are, the loss of the sense of being already all we need to be.
We find a superb illustration of this in Robert Bolt’s screenplay for ‘A Man for All Seasons’. Young Richard Rich pesters Thomas More for patronage – the use of personal influence to advance another at court. Chancellor More, disillusioned by the corruption he sees in the court of Henry VIII, insists that this ambition is misconceived.
“Be a great teacher,” he says, offering Rich such a post in a local school.
“And if I was, who would know it?” Rich asks.
“You would know it; your pupils would know it – and so would God. Not a bad public.” More returns.
But Rich has set his sights on the political summit – and eventuallyperjures himself and betrays More – in order to become attorney general for Wales. More goes to the block.
Rich pesters More because he sees himself as being ‘out’ as well as ‘down’. More is a doorway ‘into’ the charmed circle of Henry’s court. If you are ‘in’ you are also ‘up’. So when More does not let him in, Rich tries another door – the unscrupulous Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell’s price is Rich’s perjury.
Here too we find the connection between ‘wanting to be’, personal corruption, and the desire to climb. The ‘higher’ we are, the more people will see us, and the ‘greater’ we become. Herein too lies the extraordinary power of modern electronic media. Alexander the Great’s desire to ‘conquer the world’ can be achieved today by an Andre Agassi, or a Tom Cruise – for each is known globally via the TV and cinema screen.
“Top of the world, Ma”, “We’re going to the Top”, “The Jet Set” – these familiar clichés also connect fulfilment with elevation – as though the world actually had a ‘top’. The building of political empires followed the same logic – to subject a world conceived as planar to a single political edifice at the centre. George Bush is probably as close to fulfilling Alexander’s ambition as anyone will ever get – hopefully.
But what happens to this logic when we reflect that Earth has no ‘top’, that every one of us occupies the same boundless surface, which has no ‘rim’ or ‘edge’ because it meets itself in all directions – and that logically therefore, since there is no ‘up’ we are all equal, and since there is no centre, no-one is ‘out’?
It follows that there is no need to ‘want to be’, for we already ‘are’.
In evolutionary terms, to get the global human population to this insight as quickly as possible, someone sometime had to affirm that no-one ever is ‘out’ or ‘below’. The man who set out to build a kingdom for all the rejected of the world – even before the limitless nature of human space was understood – and without violence or self-admiration – must surely take the prize. As a consequence we find the inclusive symbol of the cross on all continents – however ambiguously it may first have arrived.
However, the vertical structure of the church, the source of all the ambition within it – is now a serious barrier to the growth of this spiritual insight, and a relic of the flat earth consciousness of antiquity. The investment of so much reverence in the person of the Pope – despite the historical evidence that God does not invest all grace there – creates a ‘wannabe’ culture within the church itself – as Cardinal Gantin confirmed when complaining about episcopal careerism just a year or so ago.
What is the implication of organising monster meetings for the central purpose of getting close to the Pope, other than the notion that we thereby come closer to God than we can be in our own backyard or parish church? What is the implication of a papal ‘court’ other than the notion that this man is most worthy, more ‘in’ and higher ‘up’ than we?
Were the Pope on the other hand to insist that no-one needs to ‘want to be’ anyone other than he or she is – for all are equally important – what then? In asking the church to reconsider how his office might be exercised, John Paul II draws us closer to this eventuality also.
Nothing is more certain than the need to challenge the ‘wannabe’ problem head on. Adolescent girls starve themselves because they want to be the super slim model they see on the catwalk. Young men may often deny themselves participation in sport because they don’t possess the idealised physique that TV sports coverage tells them they should have. Self-rejection is a primary factor in suicide, clinical depression, addiction, and criminality. The political corruption we are currently uncovering in Ireland is clearly a result of ‘wanting to be’ the lavish Irish country squire – the centre of attention and power.
And ‘wanting to be’ is also at the root of rampant consumerism and environmental decay. Advertising has discovered that our sense of our own inadequacy can be exploited by associating consumer wares with the people we ‘want to be’.
Which means that ‘sin’ is centrally concerned with self-dislike and the self-advancement that follows. The fixation that sexual desire is the root of all evil is entirely misplaced. The Decalogue connects even adultery with covetousness – the desire to possess what someone else already has. The media deliberately create sexual desire by creating sexual stereotypes – icons of desirability to create dissatisfaction with the partners we already have.
The current Blairite craze for ‘meritocracy’ should be another target of spiritual awareness – for it implies a pyramid of worthiness without ever clarifying that most of the ‘worthy’ have simply purchased their privilege by virtue of an historical advantage that has nothing to do with ‘merit’. The principle that ‘everyone should be able to rise to whatever position their talent and efforts deserve’ implies a level playing field to begin with, an inequality of worthiness, and a perfect arbiter to determine who is worthy – while apparently the possession of vast inherited wealth and a drone lifestyle do not disqualify. The whole notion is palpable nonsense – a thin disguise for mere selfishness, and a source of disillusionment to those who find themselves rejected.
It disguises also the self-regard of the merely clever, and the elevation of a narrow kind of intelligence to power and privilege. Education today increasingly emphasises its capability to ‘change your life’ by making us ‘everything you want to be’. Thus, merely knowing has become more important than understanding, mere information more important than wisdom.
It is no accident either that meritocratic Britain is critically short of nurses and teachers – ‘wanting to be’ is taking over from wanting to serve.
Another wannabe problem results from the prominence given to theological expertise in the church – and especially the notion that the more theology one knows the wiser one necessarily becomes. This prominence creates the theological wannabe. Wisdom has to do with quality of being, not quantity of knowing. Of course we must know what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truth, but this is essentially quite simple: that each of us is infinitely loved by the creator of all being, and can never be alienated from that love. To peddle the notion that we can only arrive at this understanding by subjecting ourselves to a course in theology is essentially to do what the lawyers were accused of doing: using the key of knowledge to prevent others from entering, while not entering themselves. Here, I believe, we find the reason that theology often leads to nothing but arid debate – pride enters in to convince us that our greater knowledge entitles us to greater respect. The internet is often a theological battlefield as protagonists aspire to be ‘right’ when the only source of wisdom is the compulsion to love and let be.
As we mull over the strange failure of Catholic education to develop in Ireland a community at peace with itself, and in love with God, we need to acknowledge that in buying into the secular meritocratic mirage we pulled from underneath ourselves the essential truth: that respect cannot be merited. We owe one another respect because we are all equally flawed, yet equally and infinitely loved by the same God, and cannot add another cubit to our height, whatever we achieve.
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)
Discovery of the soul is discovery of the self – the self that we don’t wannabe, the core of our being that God knows and loves. We need urgently to acknowledge the power of global media to alienate us from the wisdom to be content to be ourselves – and counter it at every turn – by telling every wannabe that he or she already – gloriously – is.