Sociologist Jean Twenge recalls the moment about 20 years ago when her nephew received a trophy.
At two feet tall, it was pretty spectacular. Three words were prominently displayed: Excellence in Participation.
In her book Generations, Twenge charts the post-World War II birth of an American cultural revolution – the notion that children will live happier lives and achieve greater success if only they choose to believe in themselves.
That’s why the kids of the so-called Millennial generation (born 1980-1994) got participation trophies just for being on the team, and why every student might be honored at school award ceremonies. That way, everybody could go home feeling awesome.
According to a number of educators at the end of the 20th century, that made perfect sense. If kids feel awesome, they will be awesome. Right?
Author Charlotte Alter observes, “Losing was so treacherous that everyone had to become a winner.”
The doctrine of self-belief was pervasive. Televangelist Robert Schuller declared that self-esteem would launch the Second Reformation. According to Mona the Monkey in the kids’ book The Loveables in the Kingdom of Self-Esteem, the gates to the kingdom always swing open when you shout, “I’m loveable!” three times. Any resemblance to what happens when someone shouts “Beetlejuice!” three times was apparently not taken into account.
The societal pendulum swung from “you should be praised and rewarded because of what you have accomplished” to “you should be praised and rewarded because you are you.”
Whitney Houston’s 1986 chart-topper Greatest Love of All captured the spirit of the times. Consider the chorus:
Because the greatest love of all is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all inside of me
The greatest love of all is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself, it's the greatest love of all
Schools launched programs to help kids learn to love themselves, convinced they would behave better and score higher on tests. By the time those same students reached college, their professors felt pressured to pass out A’s even to those who didn’t deserve them. In a 2008 survey, two out of three undergrads thought they should receive higher grades if they simply explained that they were trying really hard. Others insisted they should get a B just for showing up at a majority of the lectures.
How have things turned out?
As Twenge points out, Millennials definitely became “the most optimistic and self-confident generation in history.” But objective measurements have not validated the thesis that self-esteem, when passed out like Snickers bars to trick-or-treaters, automatically yields personal achievement. People with high self-regard do not perform better than people with low self-regard. SAT scores stayed level or declined during the years that Millennials were in high school.
Generational tendencies, of course, are just that: They clearly don’t apply to every individual.
But slogans like “just be yourself” and “follow your dreams” have nevertheless been repeated so often in movies, sitcoms, pop tunes, and social media that they are now widely assumed to be deep truths.
Twenge, for one, isn’t buying it. “’Just be yourself,’ is not great advice,” she writes. “It’s not just self-focused, it’s delusional. What if you’re a jerk? What if you’re a serial killer? Maybe you should be somebody else.”
Will all of our dreams come true, just because we’re dreaming them? They won’t. You can’t become a center on an NBA team if you stand only 5 feet 9 inches. And you won’t excel at math, soccer, teaching, playing the cello, or creating extraordinary oil paintings unless your dreams are accompanied by a lifetime of hard work, failure, and getting back up every time you fall.
Spiritual searchers sometimes overlook the fact that Hebrews chapter 11, the Bible’s so-called Hall of Fame of Faith, is populated by characters who did a great deal of falling down and getting back up.
Moses, Sarah, Joseph, Samson, David, and Rahab struggled to keep their eyes on God. As far as we know, they did not receive participation trophies. “Thanks for being part of the Abrahamic covenant!”
Without mentioning names, the author of Hebrews honors those who “went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised” (11:37-39).
Those women and men didn’t trust in their own specialness. They put their trust in a special God.
The good news is that we don’t have to become the source of our own happiness or the solution to our own problems.
The greatest love of all, in the end, isn’t learning to love ourselves.
It’s to bet our lives that embracing God’s love for us – imperfect as we are – is all we will ever really need.