This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 25th August 2017
In my first job on leaving school I found myself manning an exhibit at a trade fair in East Kilbride. I was demonstrating a new, high tech measuring system based on fluidics rather than electronics. I stood there day after day answering questions about the technology, the advantages and possible applications. I was ready for any question that is until that lady came along.
She was a politician, a Member of Parliament and she stumped me with her first question. I was busy explaining the intricacies of our world changing (but now long forgotten) device when she stopped me and asked “What are you?”
I mumbled something about being a civil servant but the damage was done. I realised that I couldn’t really answer the question to my own satisfaction. How do we define what we are? Perhaps we can be defined by wealth.
In today’s world we see directors and chief executive officers getting enormous salaries and bonuses on top. Even the most spendthrift wife could never manage to spend it all. They really just need the money as a mark of their status. The company needs to pay the money to keep up with or even surpass the competition. It’s about defining what they are. Football clubs are willing to pay millions of pounds to buy star players. Why not train up some young players who might prove to be just as good? Buying the most expensive player is a mark of their status in the football world.
The player gets paid more in a week than some earn in lifetime of work. Does he need it? Does he know what to do with it? Often the answer is no. The money gives him status. It marks him out from the run of the mill players. It tells us that he is a superstar.
Social status is another way of defining what we are. Being the monarch clearly defines what you are. Similarly, having a title tells people that you are a cut above the rest. In a stratified society like ours your position in the hierarchy tells those below you that their respect is demanded. Having said that I must confess that I once worked with a colleague who was a belted earl and you could not meet a friendlier, more generous person. However, he was not just a colleague – he was a sir.
Climbing the social ladder is never easy. Your choice of parents will set your starting point. If you apply yourself you might rise up the scale while carelessness could see you in a rapid descent. Possessions provide an easier route to the top. Driving the right car can be a social marker that many can attain. What car do you drive? Does it turn heads as you glide into the car park at Gleneagles; the location is important too, although I once saw a Daimler parked at Lidl. Lidl could be seen as a marker of my social standing I suppose.
If your possessions or your job can help define what you are then you have a measure of control over what you are. You can choose what you want to be. As a boy I wanted to be a pilot and if the RAF had not found me to be colour blind, that’s what I might have been. So if we can choose what we are how do we decide? What should I aim to be?
We can take advice from other people. People with more experience of the world can often point us in the direction of things we never knew existed. My grandfather’s ambition for me was to be a draughtsman. He saw me sitting at a drawing board in an office far above the factory floor drawing plans for the things the workforce would have to manufacture. In his view I would be ‘somebody’. Not seeing things from his perspective I ignored his advice.
Doing some careers guidance in school I was always at pains to advise pupils not to decide on what they were to be. How was I supposed to know what was the best thing for every pupil? My advice was to choose subjects that gave them the widest options later on. Lets’ face it, most people end up doing something completely different from what they thought they would be.
If we are looking for advice we should really look to someone who knows. As Christians we often turn to God when faced with a difficult choice. So what vision does God have for us? What does he want us to be? In my old ‘penny catechism’ the answer to “Why did God make us?” is “To know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world.”
There you have it. God wants me to be a servant. In terms of status that seems pretty low. There are many kinds of servants. I could be a waiter in a restaurant, a steward on the flight taking you to Lanzarote or the man who empties your bins. If everyone was a servant who would we serve? Who would do the high status jobs?
That was puzzling me ‘till half way through writing this article I had a heart attack. My wife whisked me off to Monklands Hospital where I found myself in real pain. The team sprang into action. If you ever watched motor racing on TV you will have seen the cars coming into the pits. A team scrambles round and everyone does their bit to get the car fuelled, tyres changed and back in the race in seconds. That was nothing compared to the team of doctors and nurses who swarmed round me and put me firmly in the land of the living.
There were doctors and specialist nurses, all high status and all of them servants. Being a servant is about doing what God sent us here to do. You could be the CEO of a large multinational and be a servant if you are looking after the interests of all of those in your charge – not just the balance sheets.
Now I don’t think God caused my heart attack so that I could get the answer to my question but I think I can see more clearly that if I am to be anything of importance I must be a servant. If I’m only concerned with earning millions or having worldwide fame I’m surely fairly worthless. I can’t think of any ‘A’ list celebrity who has an impact on my life. On the other hand if there were no doctors, nurses, bin men, bakers (the list goes on) life would become impossible.
Now I need to explore how I can become a servant, someone who plays a part in bringing about God’s kingdom on Earth for the benefit of my fellow man. I should be able to do that no matter what my status in life. If I’m an ‘A’ list celebrity I can use my position for the good of others. If I’m just a grumpy wee bald guy I can still look to the needs of those around me and make an effort to give them priority.
In finishing I’d like to thank the staff at Monklands and Hairmyres hospitals without whom this article would have been left half finished.