Spirituality for Today – November 2014 – Volume 19, Issue 4

Playing Second Fiddle with Class and Dignity

Rev. Msgr. Frank Wissel

A photo of John the BaptistJohn the Baptist by Leonardo Da Vinci

The late comedian George Carlin said, "If the No. 2 pencil is so good, why is it still number 2?"

As funny as that thought might be, it does underscore the disdain our culture holds for the position of second best. When have you ever heard a football stadium erupt with the cheer "WE ARE NUMBER 2!"? What contestant in a pageant aspires for the honor of runner-up?

Our culture definitely prefers to be Number One. Here is a test: See how many American presidents can you name, and then see how many fewer vice presidents you can name.

Or, can you see if you can list the teams that placed second-best in sports? If it is difficult to remember winners of previous Super Bowls and World Series, just try to remember the losers of those contests. For most of us, second best is not good enough. Olympic gold medal winners are on the covers of cereal boxes. How many silver medalists have you seen on a cereal box?

We love winners; we want to be first, best, Number One. Yet most of life is lived away from the fleeting spotlight of the winners circle. Most of us play supporting roles in the cast of life's play. As much as we might aspire to be first, our world is desperately in need of people who can play second best with grace, dignity and calling. Where can we go to find a model for second best? In the Bible.

There is a gospel reading which features a man whose contribution to the human drama was his expertise as a supporting actor. His name: John the Baptist. In him we have a wonderful example of a man who knew how to be second best. He was a virtuoso at second fiddle. If we would like to know what it takes to play this part well, let's look at John the Baptist. First, it takes a healthy ego to be second best.

It would have been very easy for John to fall victim to his own ego needs. Just think about it: He was the talk of the town. Crowds came to him from everywhere just to hear him preach. They sought him out in a wilderness place. He was the name in every headline.

Many people thought he was the great prophet Elijah, whose return at the close of time was prophesied in the Bible. It had been 400 years since Israel had heard this type of prophetic voice. The common people heard him with wonder. The government leaders feared his influence with the masses. He was at the peak of his popularity.

At that moment, the religious leaders came to John and asked him, "Are you really the prophesied one? Are you the Messiah?" How easy it would have been to say "Yes." But not John. He knew his place in God's plan. He was a supporting role.

He came to prepare the way for the Messiah. Despite the outrageous claims from his adoring public, John knew that the real Messiah was greater still, and the only one worthy of such acclaim.

John did not have a need for position, or competitive advantage to feel adequate. He drew his ego strength from knowing his place in God's kingdom. He sought only the approval of God. For many of us this is not true, or not true enough, about our lives. Many of us do not know our place in God's plan, or we are not willing to accept it. Many of us feel inadequate, and seek to fill our sagging egos with the acquisition of accomplishment, advancement, popularity, power, money or title. As a result, we never feel satisfied, safe or fulfilled even if we achieve our goals.

An anemic ego is not fortified by the approval of the world or the achievement of a conquest. A healthy ego is only found in relation to the God who made us. Let us first seek his kingdom, and everything else will find its proper place.

Then it takes great skill to be second best.

Those who play supporting roles do not do so because they lack the skill of lead players, but because they have the skills necessary to provide the right support.

When I was a principal of an inner-city Catholic high school I had the great support of assistant administrators, head of departments, faculty, students, and parents. Yes, I was "top dog," but I was only successful because of highly dedicated, professional educators, who easily and gracefully became virtuosos at second fiddle.

God himself is watching and the world is waiting. We have no lack of superstars and headliners today. They are a dime a dozen. What the world needs today is someone who can really play second best with class and dignity.