By Karin Childs
There’s a saying: “Everyone wants their fifteen minutes of fame.” It’s a natural human desire to want to be noticed and admired. But there’s another saying: “There’s a price to fame.” People who receive a lot of public admiration can see it quickly turn to mass criticism if they fall short of expectations. They can lose any sense of privacy and private life. And they run the risk of developing an inflated ego, which can lead them into pitfalls—like having a sense of superiority over others, lacking the ability to see one’s own faults, or failing to hold oneself accountable for one’s actions.
As Swedenborg says about anything and everything, it’s not what happens to us externally that matters; it’s what we do with what happens that counts.
Our sensory functions are most directly exposed to the world; they let in things that enter from the world and filter them. . . . Through these sensory functions our outer or earthly self is in touch with the world; through rational faculties it is in touch with heaven. . . . In this way our sensory functions provide things that are useful to our deeper functions. . . . Some of our senses support our understanding and others support our will. . . . Unless our thinking is lifted out of sensory concerns we have little wisdom. (New Jerusalem §50:6–7)
Fame is just another life experience that can result in either benefit or harm, to oneself and/or to others. Here on earth, famous people can do a lot of good in the world since their prominence affords them the opportunity to have a wide and positive impact. On the other hand, they are also capable of doing a lot of harm since their position of power can allow them to get away with harmful behavior.
What about in the spiritual world? Is fame beneficial there? Or is there a “price to fame” even in the afterlife?
There were times when Jesus’s disciples expressed hope that they would end up with positions of honor and power in the kingdom of heaven, and they even felt some competition with one another over this idea. But Jesus tried to steer their minds in a different direction concerning what “greatness” means in heaven.
He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2–4)
Jesus told his disciples that while many in power may seek to dominate others, such will not be the case for them.
“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26–28)
Swedenborg witnessed that in heavenly communities, people in positions of authority are not ones who consider themselves to be better than other people. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
We may conclude from this what the officials [in heaven] are like—namely, that they are the people who more than others enjoy love and wisdom and who therefore, out of that love, wish well to everyone and out of that wisdom know how to make sure it happens. People like this do not control and command but minister and serve, for doing good for others out of a love for what is good is serving, and making sure that it happens is ministering. They do not make themselves more important than other people but less so, for they put the welfare of the community and of their neighbor first and their own later. (Heaven and Hell §218)
Based on this account, it would seem that showing genuine humility, along with having a sincere desire to serve the greater good, actually makes it spiritually safe for someone to be in a position of authority in heaven. Because there is indeed a “price of fame” in the afterlife—or, more specifically, a “price of seeking fame,” in the sense of eliciting greater attention or admiration than others do: one who exudes a sense of superiority is very unpleasant for other spirits to be near.
About the Aura of those who regard others as nothing
Someone who had been great in life and seemed to himself to be wise beyond others, was raised up from the foot-sole, where he had been, into the realm above and near the head, and around the front parts toward a group of spirits. Because in life he, together with his associates, had been the kind who regarded others as nothing, but himself as greater and wiser than all mortals, and because he was adored as such by those under him, he brought along that earthly character that emanates an aura. The effect of the aura was that first something like a white veil was twisting around in the atmosphere, which soon became to them like a dense mist, like a sea of mist that covered them over, and crying out they said they are being submerged and could not struggle out, but the mist covered them over. After that they said that they are in such trouble that they could not live, knowing that an aura having such an effect exhaled from him. (Spiritual Experiences §2681)
About an air of supereminence and authority over others
There are those who think they stand out above others in mental ability, or knowledge, or public authority, or some other quality, and who in comparison with themselves may not despise others, but still regard them as unimportant, such as those they instruct, or of whom they are in charge. Such people may yet be humble and perform many duties to others, but still the aura of their disposition and thoughts prevails involuntarily, shining out of their least movements, their gestures, facial expressions, conversations, without them knowing it. Such people may also be humble before the Lord and have good intentions at heart. Thus it is a kind of haughtiness or arrogance distinct from the commonly known type of haughtiness or arrogance. . . . When [a certain spirit like this] was present, all the spirits were compelled to go away to a distance so as not to be veiled over by that misty aura spoken of [above]. (Spiritual Experiences §§2699, 2700)
In Swedenborg’s day, fame was often associated with those of religious status, such as with prominent religious leaders or with people who had been regarded as saints.
Moreover, of people who were worshipped as saints and thus as gods, only three kinds were depicted to me: namely, those who turned away from that worship, and were among angels and under their protection; then, those who did not want to be among the gods and be worshipped as gods, but nevertheless retain some of the dregs, even though they repudiate it with the mouth. The third kind is profane, accepting that kind of worship and wanting to be acknowledged as gods. They are miserable, silly and stupid. (Spiritual Experiences §443)
Notice that good people who had turned away from being worshipped as saints were brought under the protection of angels. But what would they need to be protected from? Well, they would need to be kept safe from the negative effects that receiving adoration might have on a person’s ego. For example, Swedenborg describes a woman known as Saint Genevieve who came from heaven to scold people who wanted to worship her.
[Genevieve] appears to the Parisians sometimes, above, at a middle height, in gleaming apparel and appearance almost saintly Divine, beautiful. She is looked up to by many, and there are those who want to call upon her. At this time her appearance changes, and she becomes just like another woman and chides them . . . saying that she is among ordinary women and is esteemed no more than any other woman—she is in a certain society where she is unknown, held in little regard there—and that she knows entirely nothing about those who are in the world, still less hears or perceives anything. . . . She says too that she is not among the better and that those who want to be greater than others become more ordinary than others, and that it does harm to many to be canonized, because when they hear this, from their evil heredity they swell up and begin to display pride. (Spiritual Experiences §6091)
In heaven, becoming an “ordinary” person is not considered a punishment or even unappealing. Instead, it’s a way to protect a person’s ability to receive the blessed happiness of heaven. A sense of self-importance would not only block the joy of working in community with others, of appreciating that everyone is needed and valuable, but it would also prevent one from receiving the angelic power to do good.
Angels have absolutely no power on their own, but that all the power they have comes from the Lord. Further, they are powers to the extent that they recognize this fact. Any of them who believe that their power comes from themselves immediately become so weak that they cannot resist even a single evil spirit. This is why angels take absolutely no credit to themselves and turn down any praise or admiration for anything they have done, but attribute it all to the Lord. (Heaven and Hell §230)
And that brings us back to what Jesus had to say about who would be the “least” and the “greatest” in heaven.
An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” (Luke 9:46–48)
“The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:26–27)
Having a childlike willingness to look up to the Lord as the source of everything and a desire in the heart to do good for other human beings are the keys to relaxing into the flow of heavenly joy, to working in harmony with others, and to being in a loving partnership with God. Whatever our earthly status, whether we are well-known or known by only a very few, we can practice opening to that divine flow and finding ways to serve the greater good.
Karin Childs is a writer and host for Swedenborg & Life.