For a long while now, I’ve been thinking about the concepts of “modesty,” “confidence,” “arrogance” and “pride.” When it looks like things have been going well for you, when you feel like you’ve done a good many incredible things in your life and when you have had some wonderful opportunities, you’re tempted to spend a lot of time talking about these things. You frame these things in the best light and, even if you try to be modest about it, you’re actually pretty proud of your “accomplishments.”
I’ve always grown up being the “smart” one in a large extended family, with now well over 80 cousins. Growing up with this unusual regard carries with it an unusually large amount responsibility. I made the best grades, had the best prospects, focused on school above all else, and made “knowledge” and the attainment of it one of my chief aims in life. This was expected of me, but, I was equally praised for doing so.
I was always a scrawny kid growing up– maybe even still am– but I realized that if I could outsmart the tall brute, I would get the upper hand. Growing up in Philadelphia, I got into plenty of fights because of a big “smart” mouth, most of which ended with me having a bloody face and a bruised up body. I didn’t really quite understand the whole idea of outsmarting rather than blatantly offending and asking for trouble. It took me a good while until I learned better― then again, some of my friends will say I never have.
But, for the sake of storyline, I stopped being such a “smart” mouth and rather used my smarts to excel in school, to set myself up for a good college education. After shaping a marketable college application and spending hours upon hours on scholarship applications, I was able to put together a reasonable package to be able to at least cover one year of studies at Wofford College. Every year since, I’ve had to rely on financial aid at Wofford and from other institutions to come through for me. They have.
So, there it is. “I” have done a good many things and should feel proud of myself. In reality, “I” am not as self-dependent as it seems. Every step of the way, there has been a teacher to push me into some summer program, a friend to drop me a hint about an internship, a cousin to shake my worldview a little bit, and a father treating me like a loved son even when what’s best for me may conflict with his own dreams and intentions for my life.
In St. Petersburg, I realized my dependence and my fortune more so than ever.
I’d met with students that recognized the American dream and American opportunity for what it is: that in America with the right amount of work ethic, a great deal of ambition, a few good opportunities, and a willingness to make sacrifices, anyone has the potential, at least, to be able to achieve any one dream they may have. Of course, a man with two left feet will probably struggle to make it as a professional dancer and a woman with ever burning pockets might have a hard time becoming a good economist, but even still those things are possible under American opportunity.
One day, sitting in the Sauna in Moscow, I had a brief conversation with a man from Kazan who also agreed that the kind of things we’re capable of doing in America, many people dream of. I encountered this same sentiment this summer when speaking to young folks from Italy, Spain, France, Norway, and Sweden: conversations on a tour bus, at the beach, in the park, at a hostel, in a bakery. People everywhere do have opportunities. But, not everyone has it as good as an American.
I was born with a knack for knowledge, given the materials and the opportunities to exercise and develop my talents, and allowed to excel. Without everything coming into place as it has, I would not be who I am today. Without everything coming into place as it has, I am nothing.
Let’s propose that tomorrow I have a terrible accident and my ability to crunch numbers, my ability to process information, and my abilities to memorize things and to synthesize thoughts is gone. I could no longer be proud of my intelligence, because like a vapor of hot air it would have left me. I would in this realm at least be nothing.
Intelligence, strength, beauty, charm, cleverness, humor, and any other characteristics ascribable to man (or woman) can one day simply vanish. Like one’s childhood, these things can pass by quickly leaving only distant memories.
I have one thing that does give me value, one thing that may never fade. That one thing is a relationship with God. I’m not the best Christian, not even a good Christian. In this realm, as well, I may simply be nothing. But, in the love that lies in a Savior who dies for you― a wretched human being, a liar, a hypocrite, a murder, even if only in thought, an adulterer, a being filled with envy and hate for another’s successes―to justify you before a Just God, I am more than nothing.
Without this belief, I really, truly am nothing. Define me by my talents, looks, potential and you can explain me away by good breeding, natural genetic ability, or whatever else.
This is why I am nothing. But, then again, this is why I am something.
Posing with the Andrei Roiter Exhibition in the Moscow Museum of Modern Art.