little big man

This morning I heard a spirited discussion about Lance Armstrong:  Is he a good man for supporting so many people with cancer or is he a bad man for destroying so many of his competitors and close friends? This disagreement is in the neighborhood of an idea that I’ve been mulling over for some time, and I trot it out here to gain your improvement.

I contend there are at least two kinds of jerks in the world:  the big little man and the little big man. I’m using “man” here in a gender inclusive way, just because it sounds more insulting to my ear than “big little person.” Besides, if Brian Williams, Matt Lauer, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and everyone else on NBC could sing “The Brotherhood of Man” before last year’s Super Bowl, then it probably isn’t too big of an offense. But if it is, please substitute “human” or “person” for “man” and you’ll still catch the point.

The Big Little Man is the type of jerk we are used to, the person God warns us against in James 2. This person plays up to the people who are above him. He mistreats his peers and subordinates but puts on airs for the rich and powerful, because he wants to be them. When you see a known jerk desperately trying to impress his superiors, an apt response is, “Well, aren’t you a big little man!”

The Little Big Man is a different kind of jerk. This person plays well down the chain—numerous stories circulate about how he makes time to mentor young students or shepherd cancer patients—but he gruffly abuses those whom he perceives to be on his level. If the many reports are accurate, this seems to be the case with Lance Armstrong.

I’ve seen writers, pastors, professors, and parents who fit the profile of the Little Big Man. I wondered how they could be so gracious to those a couple rungs down but equally mean to those on their level. I’m not sure I have the full answer, but I suspect that part of what motivates their compassion for the weak is how it makes them feel. They enjoy thinking of themselves as kind, gracious people, and helping out the less fortunate feeds that narrative.

If this is true, then starting Livestrong and reaching out to many who are stricken with cancer does not make Lance Armstrong a good person. These may be good acts, but if one of these cancer survivors had been a teammate he would have been thrown under the bus with the rest of Lance’s friends. Lance isn’t a good man. He’s a Little Big Man.

Here’s a good way to judge someone’s character, including our own. Watch how they treat the least of these, and the greatest, and those in between. Jerks come in all sizes, as many sizes as there are people.

2 Comments

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  1. I struggle with both. There are times when I want myself to shine and as a result, I play up to others. Or, I feel that I’ll never attain a certain position and as a result, I say negative things about those in higher positions. I’m thankful for grace as I learn who I am to be (and who not to be) in light of the Gospel.

  2. Thanks for clearing that up. I confess that I have been confused about “Little Big Man” ever since I saw Dustin Hoffman star in the movie. * As for Lance, I wonder if his “good deeds” were an attempt to assuage his guilt or just add value to his brand.

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