“I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be who I am.” — Muhammad Ali
“Stepping into our largeness is not narcissism — it ultimately proves our greatest contribution to others. All it requires is the resolve to stand humbly but responsibly before our own largeness, and then step into it.” — James Hollis, PhD, What Matters Most
What a paradox we find in the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali! The contradictions go very deep if the praise is praise-worthy, when you consider that his claim to fame was beating other men up. Yet as witnessed in eulogies from all faiths at his funeral, Ali was universally acclaimed as a man of peace and compassion who inspired the downtrodden and gave us the courage to live out the best version of ourselves. It was a constant theme at the funeral.
What happened to the humble being exalted when it came to a cultural icon who couldn’t stop bragging about himself? Who ever heard of a prophet saying, “I must be the greatest” when proclaiming what was being fulfilled in him? How is this not narcissistic inflation?
There is no hero like the humble hero, for winning our hearts along with the battle. Isn’t there something in the Bible about those who feel the need to boast, that they should only boast about what Christ has done? How about the spiritual fact that I must decrease and God increase in equal measure, to make any progress on the journey of faith whatsoever? Or that the first shall be last and the last first, when it comes to pecking orders in the kingdom of heaven?
Ali’s response: “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.” With fame seemingly going to his head like that, it’s equally hard to fathom the impact he had on so many: socially, culturally, politically, and yes, spiritually. As Ali’s contemporary, Bob Dylan, who also created a larger than life persona, sang caustically during the same era: “There’s something happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”
Mr. Jones is who we are when we don’t know who we are apart from socially conditioned roles, in short, when we don’t know what the soul wants, let alone being ready to live it out. The constructed self, otherwise known as the false self, is the do-gooder propped up by external validation and caught up in the trappings that support it, on the authority of what makes one acceptable in the eyes of others. It’s the counterfeit version of personhood and by far not the best version, being basically fear-based. The last thing it would risk is inner authority, because its claims to significance and belonging can be deconstructed like a house of cards.
True identity, the rock of salvation, so to speak, saves us from the anxiety maintenance system of the provisional “small” self, to the extent that it points beyond itself. It is part of a bigger story witnessing to values, principles, ideals, and eternal truths. It is summoned to a much larger life of the Self than self-seeking could ever hope to achieve.
Ali was all about interior freedom from oppression on any level: inherited, conditioned, culturally imposed, or self-induced. What makes his “greatness” so different than puffed up jingoistic political arrogance? Ali played with and played up an exaggerated pride with a twinkle in his eye, making the outsized persona a mouthpiece for the spiritual vision and soul strength behind it. As one of his entourage said, “This is only a stop, look and listen sign he’s doing, fighting. I think Muhammad is a prophet. This is God’s act, we just actors in it.”
Speyer is a Benedictine Oblate as well as clinical supervisor of e-counselling for a major employee & family assistance program, and creative director, InnerView Guidance International (IGI). He also directs a documentary series titled GuideLives for the Journey: Ordinary Persons, Extraordinary Pathfinders. http://www.guidelives.ca/ Connect with Cedric on https://www.facebook.com/cms94 or via firstname.lastname@example.org