When I was younger, I used to want to be famous. So many of us do. We dream of being the next big rock star: When I started playing the guitar, I was determined to be the next Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Those dreams evaporated when the time I needed to sink into practicing and writing lyrics ended up being spent on successively more time-consuming video games.
Giving up on a career as singer-songwriter (and after all, the touring lifestyle isn’t an easy one), I thought I could be the next great British author. After all, singers have to be in the public eye, but an author can hide in famous obscurity behind the books they write. Only your name needs to be famous.
This “career” also died after I got distracted by other hobbies, and after I realised I just didn’t have the patience to write a novel. I like making up stories, but actually getting them down on paper or hard-drive? Who has the time!?
What drives the desire to be famous? For me, I don’t think it was the money. I wouldn’t have minded a career that provided financial stability, of course, but even as a teenager I was at least vaguely aware that many famous authors make only a modest living. Many authors and artists have died as paupers, unappreciated in their own lifetimes.
But their names live on. Even if you haven’t read Tolstoy, Dickens or Austen – you’ve probably heard of them. Giants whose surname alone is sufficient to speak to their fame. You could add Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, or Bronte. (Should that be Brontes? There was a whole mess of them.)
Last night, I went to see, “Stand and Ollie,” the new film about Laurel and Hardy. I proudly sat in the beautifully vintage Roxy Cinema in Stan Laurel’s hometown and was delighted by a gentle, touching (but not schmaltzy!) film about two of the greatest comedians the world has ever known. It highlighted their immense talent and enduring legacy.
But there were several moments in the film that made me stop and think. Part of the main plot is about Stan trying to resuscitate the duo’s career. It doesn’t spell it out, but we can speculate: Was it about money? Was it the desire to be known, the thirst for fame? Perhaps most likely, it was simply down to their friendship, successful working partnership and the delight that Stan took in writing for them – proven (at least by the film’s end titles) by the fact that while he never performed with another partner, he kept writing Laurel & Hardy film scripts till he died.
People have all manner of motivations for wanting to be in the spotlight – for wanting to pursue success. Some are just in it for the money. Some are in it for the pride and adulation of adoring fans. Some have a desperate desire to “live on” somehow by leaving a legacy that will outlast them*. Some artists are so dedicated (read: obsessed) to their craft that they will pursue it to their own destruction.
Most of the above reasons come back to what others think of us. Either what they think of us while we’re alive, or what they’ll think of us after we’re dead. Will they remember our names? Will they see us as successful? Will they envy us? Will they pity us?
In a sense, Christians are called to be content with Mediocrity.
Of course, if we have a real sense of being God’s people – a holy priesthood (Revelation 1:6), his servants on earth…then we ought really to be like good cub scouts and “Do our best.” Only the best is good enough in terms of our life and witness. It’s no bad thing for Christians to strive for excellence in all we do.
I’m talking about the motives behind what we do. Are we living to please men, or living to please our Heavenly Father? Are we content to be seen as Mediocre in the eyes of the world, as long as we hear “Well done, good and faithful servant”? (Matthew 24:21)
I work as a fulltime elder in a small Reformed Baptist church in a town which – for all that it may be Stan Laurel’s hometown – is viewed by a backwater by the rest of the country. I have non-Christian family who look on my day-to-day with confusion: “Don’t you want to work in a bigger church? Don’t you want better pay? Wouldn’t you better off being in a big city where there’s more people?”
I do, of course, want to work in a bigger church, but only if that’s one that has grown by people being saved and added to it. It won’t mean success in the eyes of the world. After I’m dead, within a few generations, I’ll probably be forgotten as anything other than a name on a family tree.
But that mediocrity is something I can be content with, if I can live a faithful, fruitful Christian life, if I can serve my God in the place He has put me, and complete the work – however unimpressive it might seem to others – that He has given me.
So, let me ask you – are you content with mediocrity? Are you driven to perform by what others think of you, or are you happy to wait for the one opinion that really matters?
*I’m reminded of a classic Woody Allen quote: “I don’t want to live on through my family, I want to live on by not dying.”