One of the earliest and most significant products of American ingenuity was the self-made man. Ben Franklin was the prototype. He was a humble printer’s apprentice who made his fortune in the printing trade and retired early to become one of the great scientific minds of his age. Frederick Douglas, an emancipated slave, lectured on the subject. The Gilded Age produced a bumper crop of men who possessed vast wealth they had not inherited. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison sought out each other’s company, just as Warren Buffet and Bill Gates do today. All might well have viewed themselves as their own single greatest achievement.
Self-made men have long been regarded as a myth – not the least because of the millions who must toil in their shadow to produce the wealth enjoyed by these favored few. Yet the myth has not endured simply because plutocrats took a shine to it. We all indulge in the notion that our accomplishments are achieved largely through our own efforts. So thoroughly are we imbued in the mythology of self that we can’t imagine the world will keep turning unless we get out and push.
And yet somehow it does. The wisest among us have long understood that the only truly self-made part of us is the self itself. Whether fashioned from rough cloth or silken fabric, the self is painstakingly stitched together with nothing more substantial than thought. Life for most of us is an elaborate costume drama in which the players strut about in their home-sewn finery, not realizing they are all dressed up in the emperor’s new clothes. Such is our state of mass delusion that we cannot see beneath all our fake frills and feathers to the naked splendor beneath.
Once we truly understand we are made in God’s image, not our own, we begin to realize we were created for purposes that have little to do with self regard. And yet if we allow our true nature to emerge of its own accord, we will discover that God’s purposes are far closer to our heart’s desire than our own vain imaginings.
Does this mean we will all become rich and famous if only we learn to cease striving and let God do the heavy lifting? Not for a minute should we believe that God lends his name to still grander delusions. Reality is far more daunting; it is also the only sure pathway to deliverance. Some while ago the New York Times ran a series of vignettes on unsung actors in New York, all of them talented artists who had long toiled in the shadow of the favored few in their profession. Many of them had hung on for decades earning no more than $20,000 to $40,000 per year in secondary roles and walk-on parts. Are they also deluded for doggedly pursuing their craft in the face of such meager rewards?
Perhaps there are other compensations that only emerge after long years of pursuing one’s dream, no matter how threadbare. A 61-year-old actress named Joan MacIntosh had been a single mother living at times on little more than hope and unemployment checks. She remembers a point where she was down to ten dollars in her checking account and fifty cents in her pocket. “But I have to tell you, I really learned the power of faith and trust. I can’t count how many times I felt like I was up against it, and the phone would ring, and it would be a job offer.” She added, “It’s like a sign from the universe saying, ‘Don’t worry. It’s all going to be fine.’”
“What? And Leave Show Business?” by Campbell Robertson in the New York Times (August 26, 2007)