Forget First or Second, I Am Third

(You can also listen to this on Tri States Public Radio)  

I hear myself saying a little too often these days that I’m glad I grew up when I did, before cell phones and selfies. Before the internet became a runaway train of disinformation. Before being famous was valued more than being a good person. Before this current era of entitlement where the prevailing attitude is “It’s all about me.” Me first. America first. Look at me. Like me. Follow me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. 

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I’m starting to feel like my grandparents, when they expressed their disapproval of modern ways by starting sentences with, “In my day…” I get it now. It troubles me to see the Christian values I was taught when I was young devolve into the so-called Christian values demonstrated today.  

I grew up in Iowa in the 70s and spent my summers at Camp Abe Lincoln, a YMCA camp on the Mississippi River, just south of the Quad Cities. “The YMCA is a non-profit organization whose mission is to put Christian values into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.” This mission was incorporated into every camp activity. As we sat around the nightly campfire, the counselors told stories of peace and love, and led us in songs like “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” When we rode and groomed horses, we learned about respect and care for animals. Archery and riflery were a means to teach focus and hand-eye coordination, with an emphasis on safety and non-violence. And when we did crafts, braiding lanyards and weaving colorful yarn around popsicle sticks to create a “God’s Eye,” counselors artfully worked in messages of morality.

More than 40 years later, one of those messages still sticks with me. It was about humility and selflessness delivered in the form of a quote by Gayle Sayers, a Hall of Fame football player for the Chicago Bears. The quote was, “The lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third,” though I didn’t remember it in those exact words. I thought it was “God is first, others are second, and I am third.” I like to think my version is more all-encompassing, as every religion, not just Christianity, worships God, even if they call it by a different name. And by declaring “others are second,” it can include making an outsider feel welcome, helping people less fortunate than you, or simply being nice to strangers, like letting the person with only one item go ahead of you in the grocery line when you have a full cart. All of which leaves you open to making more friends. 

God is first, others are second, 

and I am third.”

Sayers lived his life by this credo, which you can learn more about in his autobiography titled “I Am Third: The Inspiration for Brian’s Song.” He passed away at the age of 77 this past September. If he were still alive, I would reach out to him to ask what he thought about the world today. 

What do you think about people hacking pipeline computers causing others to hoard gas in plastic bags? What about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how instead of sitting down to talk things through, they’re firing missiles at each other? How about antivaxxers refusing to wear a mask during a global public health crisis, claiming it infringes on their personal rights? What about mobs storming the Capitol because their candidate didn’t win? What do you think about the suppression of voting rights, the bullying on social media, and the proliferation of guns, as if we need to arm ourselves against our own neighbors? How about people—church-going, God-fearing Christians at that—closing borders in an outright refusal to aid poor and hungry immigrants, ignoring the fact that not only are these our brothers and our sisters but that we are all immigrants ourselves?

What happened to “I am third?” And how can we bring that message back? 

We can’t all go to a YMCA summer camp, and Gayle Sayers is no longer here to lead the charge, but ironically there is another football player, a coach actually, who is trying to help. His name is Ted Lasso. He’s not a real person; he’s the main character in the charming Apple TV series of the same name. Ted, played by Jason Sudeikis, is hired to coach a soccer team in England. But to everyone’s astonishment he doesn’t care about winning. What’s more important, he insists, is to be a unified team. The problem is, the star player is egocentric and refuses to pass the ball to his teammates; he makes all the goals himself so he can reap all the glory. His selfishness erodes the morale of the team, until Ted finally gets through to him, teaching him, like my camp counselors taught me, the most valuable lesson in the game of life: I am third. 

There is no “I” in team. For a safe and healthy planet, we need to work together. For a more unified world, we have to put others first. Life is better and less lonely when it’s not all about me, me, me. The solution is easy. All you have to do is pass the ball.

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