Against Grandiosity

They tell you to change the world. The kindergarten teachers and motivational speakers and missions agencies all shout with hands held high, telling you to be a world-changer. I wonder if, when these well-intentioned people say to change the world, they really mean that my calling in life is to be the one person in history who will alter the trajectory of every single one of the seven billion souls currently living and dying on this planet and everyone who will come after, born into a new world, a world with my name stamped upon it, bearing witness to my life. Because if that’s what they mean, I think that sounds really hard.

The World Changers is a group for students started by the North American Mission Board to—you guessed it—change the world. These “world changers” are attempting to complete their grand project by fixing windows and raking yards, redoing bathrooms and kitchens. They are changing the world, one loose screw at a time.

The World Changers are genuine, I’m sure, and they’re helping people, which is nice, but are they really—I mean really—changing the world? The issue, I guess, isn’t with the group; it’s with the name: World Changers. The whole thing just seems a little grandiose. It is massive and impressive and glorious and horribly, horribly impossible.


I have two sets of neighbors.

The neighbors across the street are a family that just moved in a few weeks ago. They asked us to stop parking in the spot on our street so that the husband could park his blue truck that is so big it can only be overcompensation for insecurities about his manhood. I know they have a miniature Chihuahua that yaps and yaps every time I open the front door to our house and walk to my car.

The neighbors next door are an older couple. The husband sits in his electric wheelchair on the front porch, posted up watching the cars pass. The wife occasionally joins him and has even been known to strut onto the porch without a shirt, which I haven’t seen but only heard about, thankfully. Sometimes younger people, who might be their kids, come over and do work on the house.

And this is all I know about my neighbors.

What I’m driving at is this: How can I eternally affect all of humanity if I don’t even know my neighbors’ names? If the wheelchair guy died right now, I would still go to the Hive today and eat and laugh with my friends, completely unaware of the tragedy. I could go on, business as usual.


I swear we were infinite.
—Charlie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower


Georg Cantor was a mathematician who did research on sets of numbers and came to the conclusion that there is “infinity of infinities.” Irrational numbers contain infinity numbers, and there are an infinite number of irrational numbers.

Think about this: you can never get to the end of numbers.

But I can get to the end of myself. I swear that I am not infinite, Charlie. No, I feel decidedly finite. There is infinite knowledge to be known, but humanity is falling grandly short of knowing it. What I mean is that even Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein are still infinity short of knowing everything. The Enlightenment was grasping at the hope of progressing toward completing humanity’s knowledge—that man, with his own prowess, could realize all of the knowledge. A very grandiose goal indeed. But I’m afraid that level of progression doesn’t even exist. It’s an impossible goal. It seems like every time we figure out something, we soon find out there’s something else we don’t know. There’s always another truth behind whatever at which we’re looking. Planets into galaxies into universes. Elements into atoms into protons. Recently, researchers looking into the size of protons came up with answers that don’t fit our current atomic schemes. “Maybe we don’t understand fully proton structure,” he admitted. Maybe we don’t understand fully anything.

To live a life of grandiose aspirations is to live a life chasing phantom deeds, to try and fail at things of which a mere human is incapable.

In high school, my mom used to tell me, “TJ, you’re going to grow up to cure cancer.” Now that I’ve decided to enter the ministry, she tells me, “Your generation is going to be the one that will revive Christianity in America.”

I don’t know, Mom.

But then, there are people who seem to have changed the world. Plato, Karl Marx, Mother Theresa. What about Adolf Hitler? He seems to have significantly altered humanity. But I don’t want to follow his footsteps. What about Jesus? Jesus came and tossed a grenade onto the social strata of the day, turned religion on its head and instituted the “kingdom of heaven.” If I’m supposed to be like Jesus, shouldn’t I be doing that?

If Jesus is the answer to all of the weeping and gnashing of teeth that this world faces, the one who really changes the world, why do I have to try? I don’t want that responsibility; he can keep it. It’s too big for me. But, somehow, I still feel the weight of it on my shoulders, trying to hold everything up in some deluded Messiah complex.

I cannot save the world.

Let me off the hook, please.

Perhaps significance is cumulative. Maybe I can add up all the little deeds I do and they will expand into one grand deed. Maybe I can’t alter the existence of every person on Planet Earth, but I can give my extra game tokens to the little kid sitting on the race-car chair, pretending to play the game. I can buy Alex’s coffee when his card is declined. I can shake homeless Cool Mike’s dry hand and buy him lunch at Steak n’ Shake. I can put my arm on a friend’s shoulder, listening as he cries.

I am an insignificant guy in a world driven by significance and I want that to be okay. I need that to be okay.

I don’t know if I’ll stop daydreaming about preaching a sermon so compelling that it sparks a revival eclipsing the Great Awakening, or about writing a novel that fundamentally alters the way a generation thinks, or about quitting school and starting a non-profit organization that eradicates the AIDS epidemic, making it as obsolete as chicken pox or the flu. But there are two things I know: Decisions are right in front of me. What I do with what’s right in front of me matters a great deal.

In May, TJ Pancake graduates from Cedarville University. Afterwards, he plans to move to downtown Dayton to help plant a church and embed myself in the local writing scene, where he hopes to learn from others. He looks forward to publishing collections of creative nonfiction in the future.