In the days after Christmas, I read historian David McCullough’s gripping biography of our nation’s 33rd President, Harry S. Truman. The book is simply titled, “Truman,” and it begins long before Harry Truman’s birth in May of 1884. The reader is introduced to the pioneers that settled Missouri, those who came from Kentucky or Ohio seeking land and opportunity. Those pioneers included Harry Truman’s grandparents.
The “west” was wild in the 1800’s, fortunes and lives were quickly made and lost. Families were large and children died on a regular basis. The pioneers faced natural disasters, economic downturns, epidemics, and political upheaval. Relationships with new immigrants and Native Americans were strained, and violent.
Harry’s father was a respected farmer and livestock trader. He did well and provided for his family until he lost it all. Harry Truman’s dream of going to college died with his father’s financial insolvency. Truman would have a variety of jobs, successes, and failures. He would serve as a Captain in the First World War, also known as the “war to end all wars.”
After a couple of failed business ventures, and still lacking a college degree, Truman would be elected County Court Judge of Jackson County. Harry S. Truman would make his debut on the national political stage in 1934 when he was elected to serve as the United States Senator from Missouri. When he arrived in Washington D.C., he found a small apartment to rent, and then visited a local bank to acquire a loan to buy furniture.
Harry Truman was 50 years old, and he suffered from an inferiority complex. He had little formal education; he served in Congress with college graduates and Ivy Leaguers. He was capable, hardworking, honest, dependable, and terribly insecure. In the decade that followed, the Jr. Senator from Missouri would become the most powerful man in the world. The death of Franklin Roosevelt would make Harry Truman the 33rd President of the United States.
World War 2 would end and the Cold War would begin. The Truman Administration developed the Marshall Plan, worked on Civil Rights legislation, established NATO and the CIA. President Truman would fire General Douglas MacArthur, and surprisingly win re-election in 1948.
At the end of his presidency, he packed up his car and the love of his life, Bess Truman, and they would drive themselves home to Independence, Missouri — there to live out their days. Was Harry Truman a more confident man after eight years in the White House? Probably. Was he still suffering from an inferiority complex? Perhaps.
Inferiority complex. I don’t think that most of us have an inferiority complex, but I believe that most of us are insecure. We are one cross word, one betrayal, one failure, away from insecurity. In the Spring of 1982, I was jumping through a series of hoops put before me by the Illinois Synod of the Lutheran Church in America. The hoop jumping was a precursor which would lead to a candidates’ approval or denial of admission to Luther Seminary.
After a series of psychological and academic evaluations, the church was concerned. There were no pastors in my family, my academic record was less than stellar, and the only Greek word I knew was baklava. The Assistant to the Bishop sat me down and said, “We don’t think you can do this. You don’t seem to have the capacity for this work.” I was crestfallen. Had I misjudged my sense of call from God? In the end, the Illinois Synod agreed to let me try, but it was clear that they expected me to fail.
Felicia and I moved to Saint Paul to attend Luther Seminary a few weeks after our wedding. I was insecure; I was suffering from an inferiority complex and uncertain that I could compete with the Rhodes scholars and Ivy Leaguers. 30 years later, I would serve as the Chair of the Board of Directors at the Seminary where I was bound to fail.
I would tell you that my insecurity has faded away, but it is always just below the surface. That insecurity wakes me up early each morning as I feel the need to get to work, to prove that long-dead Assistant to the Bishop wrong. I count myself in good company; I think humans by nature are insecure.
If my theory is correct, if we are all insecure, then perhaps we could cut each other a break. Maybe we could be more encouraging and less critical. Maybe we could recognize our shared humanity and the underlying fragility that plagues us all.
See you in church,