What can we learn from Martin Luther King Jr., George Costanza, Barack Obama, and King Jehoshaphat?
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. It was an appropriate moment to remember a man who gave so much and inspired so many. He is rightly regarded as one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. Yet, even as we praise him, it is also worth noting that King had one advantage that is denied to most of us, and an odd kind of advantage it was: he died young.
Now, before I cause serious offense to anyone, let me make clear that I am in no way happy that King’s life was shortened. This was a major setback for the civil rights movement and a great tragedy for America. What I am referring to is not the fact that King was murdered, but rather that his early death has preserved him in our memory at the height of his success.
Had he lived longer, he quite possibly could have messed up in some major way, tainting an otherwise golden reputation. While we would all rather have seen him live to be old and gray, the fact remains that the timing of his exit from this life helped ensure his place in history.
A more cynical version of this dilemma was summed up by none other than George Costanza, the anxiety laden best friend of the title character on Seinfeld. In the episode “The Burning”, he decided that he would always leave people wanting more by ending all his conversations on a high note. Once he was able to get people laughing, he would simply walk out of the room. This principle could be expanded to suggest that in any life activity, we should quit while we’re ahead in order to appear as successful and mistake-free as possible.
Of course, there is a problem with this kind of thinking. Those who hold to the Costanza principle are still quitters: they just leave when the job is about to get tough and before they have to replicate their early achievements, e.g. Sara Palin. But while this may remove the possibility of embarrassing moments in the future, it also does away with any chance of additional successes. There’s a good reason that our parents tell us not to be quitters.
In 1990, at the age of 28, Barack Obama became the first African-American to be elected president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. It was a big development that drew media attention, as seen in this piece by the Boston Globe. Had Obama been operating by the Costanza principle, he might have said, “Wow, I’ve just done something that no black man has ever accomplished. I think I’ll call it a day.”
Being the ambitious sort, Obama was obviously not satisfied with that, and he continued on until, at the age of 47, he became the first black president of the United States. Even then, he was not satisfied with one term in office, eventually winning a second term….and this is where my great metaphor of perseverance collapses, because many of my readers wish that Obama had not been elected to one term, let alone two, and even some of Obama’s fans admit that the second term has been no picnic.
(Interestingly, Obama did almost seem to embrace the Constanza principle at one point, telling ABC News’ Diane Sawyer back in 2010, “I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” I’ll let you make of that what you will.)
Unfortunately, staying in for the long haul is a difficult business. History is full of examples of people who got off to a great start only to fail rather phenomenally later in life. I read about one of them yesterday: the ancient King Jehoshaphat of Judah who appears in the Bible.
He made a mistake early in his career by trying to ally with wicked King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel against the advice of a divine prophet, almost getting killed in the process. He then proceeded to wise up and follow God’s instructions to the letter when his own city of Jerusalem was threatened by foreign armies, showing an impressive amount of trust and reaping the rewards.
The biblical author praises King Jehoshaphat. “So the kingdom of Jehoshaphat was at peace, for his God gave him rest on all sides….He walked in the way of his father Asa and did not depart from it, doing right in the sight of the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 20:30, 32) But after the story seems to have wrapped up with a happy ending, a few extra sentences are added.
“After this Jehoshaphat king of Judah allied himself with Ahaziah king of Israel. He acted wickedly in so doing. So he allied himself with him to make ships to go to Tarshish, and they made the ships in Ezion-geber. Then Eliezer the son of Dodavahu of Mareshah prophesied against Jehoshaphat saying, ‘Because you have allied yourself with Ahaziah, the Lord has destroyed your works.’ So the ships were broken and could not go to Tarshish.” (2 Chronicles 20:35-37)
I am sorry to say that this is how Jehoshaphat’s story ends, with the very next verse proclaiming his death. So close to the end, he made a terrible mistake, with scripture declaring that he “acted wickedly”. While his first attempt at an alliance with Israel – a kingdom heavily corrupted by false religion– might have simply been foolish, the second one seems to show a complete disregard for everything that Jehoshaphat had learned up to that point, or at least a serious case of amnesia. Having come so far, he wiped out just as he was about to cross the finish line.
This is why people will often talk about the difficulty of “finishing well”. Why do those who seem to be doing so well end up in such bad situations? I quickly thought of several reasons: complacency, undue pride, increased power and visibility, the weight of expectations, and even greater targeting by evil all came to mind. Whatever the cause is for each individual, I submit that the time we need to be most vigilant is when we are at our best.
The author of the book of Hebrews constantly encouraged his readers to persevere through the entirety of the Christian life. “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.” (Hebrews 10:36) Life may be brief in light of eternity, but for us it is a very long haul. We certainly are in need of divine endurance. The process of sanctification is never completed, and if we ever think we have “arrived” or have nothing left to learn, we are in trouble.
It is almost a truism that the hardest part of flying a plane is landing it. Upon conducting a Google search, I have determined that this is most true for beginners, but the point still stands. In some ways, our lives are similar to that pilot flying a jumbo jet up in the sky. We can’t just grab a parachute and jump out at the first sign of trouble, because there are a lot of people who are counting on us getting to our destination in one piece.
A pilot needs great training and deliberate focus in order to bring the plane in for a safe landing. In the same manner, we must prepare ourselves for what lies ahead and never become complacent. The hare may have finished, but only the tortoise finished well.
All biblical quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation.