You're so vain

Timothy Larsen on “how Dietrich Bonhoeffer tried to teach me to get over myself and stop being such a pompous jerk.”

Ecclesiastes 10:9 says, “Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them; whoever splits logs may be endangered by them” (NIV). I have always thought of this as the law of occupational hazards. It is good for all of us to reflect on what might be the unfortunate outcomes to which our vocations and positions are particularly prone.

Self-importance is an occupational hazard of the academic life. We academics tend to be vain, self-absorbed people. Our work is structured so as to make us the center of attention. We are rewarded for hearing ourselves talk, getting our names in print and convincing others that we are special -- wiser, more knowledgeable, more authoritative as experts. But one gets diminishing returns for the same amount of praise, and we end up having to seek ever-bigger doses. You know how certain kinds of people might overly slather butter on their toast? That’s how we academics like our flattery.

Believe me, I know whereof I speak.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been one of my heroes for my entire adult life. It’s possible that no book besides the Bible has ever made a greater impact on me than Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison.” It drew me on to reading his other works, as well as biographies of him and studies of his ideas.

Bonhoeffer’s socially elite family warned him that a church career would be a waste of his life. They urged him to do something important by the standards of the modern era, such as becoming a psychiatrist or a lawyer. What a narrow miss that was for all of us.

In what was supposed to be a useless vocation, Bonhoeffer has had an impact on millions through his thought and through the story of the way he lived and died. It would have been impossible for him not to realize how influential he was even quite early in his career. Karl Barth, after all, called Bonhoeffer’s doctoral thesis a “theological miracle,” and bishops across Europe, as well as leading American theologians from Reinhold Niebuhr on down, put their hope for the future of Christianity in Germany in him.

In terms of today’s regrettable ministry-speak, Bonheoffer is the very template for someone with a “strategic” ministry.

I was therefore stunned the first time I read this passage in his book “Life Together”:

The second service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.

Bonheoffer rattles us with this startling claim: Being worried about the loss of time is not a sign of a healthy awareness that our work is of vital importance. Quite the contrary; it is actually a sign that something is amiss in our character.

Academics’ favorite descriptor of our current status is to say that we’re “busy” -- much in the way that construction workers might greet one another in midsummer with, “Hot enough for ya?” When members of the faculty encounter one another midsemester, for example, we habitually offer as an affirming opening remark, “I bet you’re busy!” (I sincerely wish I could say I’m making this up for rhetorical effect.)

Students have internalized their professors’ self-reporting and therefore almost invariably preface any attempt to engage us in even the briefest of conversations with a deferential, “I know you’re busy …”

Complaining about our workload is absolutely chronic for scholars. What you hear day in and day out, up and down the sacred halls of learning, is, “I have another pile of grading to do!” or, “I need to go to class!” These are presented as if they were some kind of unjust imposition and not the primary duties of the job we are being paid to do.

To take our occupational examples from the Preacher, does it seem likely that quarrymen keep announcing bitterly to one another, “They want me to get a stone again!” or lumbermen, “I have to split another log!”? It is patently absurd to imagine that professors have a worse lot in life than most other workers. The truth is that complaining that we are busy is just a way of announcing that we think we are important and that our time is more valuable than that of most other people.

Then we read “Life Together.” There is Bonheoffer trying to train people for the Christian ministry in such an extreme and momentous context as Nazi Germany. A little slackening of his theological grip could have led those seminarians to be found wanting in the face of evil; one foolhardy goading of them toward an unnecessary provocation could have resulted in deaths.

Still, we see  Bonhoeffer, our brother in Christ, sweeping the floor and drying the dishes. It is hard for our dim eyes to trace the straight line from Bonhoeffer setting up chairs before a meeting to his ability to step from his cell in a concentration camp “calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.” But I have no doubt that there is one.

My boyish desire to be a hero like Bonhoeffer is not yet quenched. I doubt very much that it will ever be even partially fulfilled, but “Life Together” has served to remind me that the best way to prepare for such a larger-than-life possibility is to start now to learn to be faithful in little things. Maybe I will even learn to stop announcing all the while that I’m busy.