The Last Emperor

I hope you have seen the movie, The Last Emper­or” as it is a mov­ing film for many rea­sons. The Last Emper­or” chron­i­cles the life sto­ry of Pu Yi who, in the ear­ly part of the 20th cen­tu­ry, was crowned Emper­or of Chi­na when he was only three years old. The film sweeps through the years of Chi­nese his­to­ry from the medieval iso­la­tion of the For­bid­den City at the turn of the cen­tu­ry, to the chaot­ic era of the war­lords, to the trag­ic years of Japan­ese occu­pa­tion, to the dis­rup­tive years of the Red Guard, and final­ly to the mod­ern nation of Chi­na under a mol­li­fied com­mu­nist leadership. 

Through­out the movie we wit­ness Pu Yi, the Emper­or, trapped by forces beyond his con­trol — a man who wants to bring reform but who is defeat­ed repeat­ed­ly by the march of events larg­er than him­self and by his own self-indul­gence. As a child Emper­or he is hope­less­ly spoiled by the one thou­sand eunuchs who wait on him night and day but also rob him blind. After he is oust­ed from the For­bid­den City by the Chi­nese war­lords, he comes under the pro­tec­tion of the Japan­ese where he lives the life of a pam­pered play­boy. Dri­ven by the desire to rule once again, Pu Yi sides with the Japan­ese and becomes the pup­pet ruler of the State of Manchukuo. He tries des­per­ate­ly to use the Japan­ese for his own ends but suc­ceeds only in being used by the Japan­ese for their own ends. 

After World War II Pu Yi is giv­en a ten-year sen­tence to a com­mu­nist prison for the pur­pose of reha­bil­i­ta­tion train­ing. There he meets the Gov­er­nor of the prison — the one per­son in his life that is not out to use him. The lack of manip­u­la­tion star­tles Pu Yi and he doesn’t know how to han­dle the rela­tion­ship. In one graph­ic scene Pu Yi lash­es out at the Gov­er­nor of the prison, ask­ing him, Why can you not leave me alone? You saved me only because I am use­ful to you!” And in those lines Pu Yi pours out a life­time of hos­til­i­ty at being used by peo­ple: used by the eunuchs; used by his wives; used by the Japan­ese; used by the Rus­sians; used by everybody.

And Pu Yi is sure this Gov­er­nor too just wants to use him. You don’t care about me! You kept me from sui­cide only because I’m good pro­pa­gan­da for you! The only thing you care about is that I’m use­ful to you,” he said to the Governor. 

Calm­ly, the Gov­er­nor of the prison turns the phrase com­plete­ly on its head and turns the tables on Pu Yi by reply­ing, Is it so ter­ri­ble to be use­ful?” In that sim­ple, rhetor­i­cal ques­tion the Gov­er­nor of the prison touched the one-time Emper­or of all of Chi­na at his most vul­ner­a­ble point. Is it so ter­ri­ble to be use­ful?” All his life Pu Yi had been used, but he had nev­er been use­ful. All his life self-inter­est had dom­i­nat­ed. All his life the ques­tions of pow­er and ter­ri­to­r­i­al rights had been upper­most. But here was the ques­tion stalk­ing him in prison, Is it so ter­ri­ble to be useful?” 

And, of course, it is the ques­tion that stalks us. The ques­tion that stands out bold, stark, naked, that chal­lenges the assump­tions of our ego-inflat­ed, nar­cis­sis­tic culture.

We live in a soci­ety in which mas­sive self-indul­gence is the order of the day. Just below the sur­face of every encounter, every job, every respon­si­bil­i­ty is the ques­tion, What is in it for me?” And the Gov­er­nor of that prison chal­lenges us, Is it so ter­ri­ble to be useful?”

We live in a cul­ture where the uncom­pas­sion­ate accu­mu­la­tion of wealth is accel­er­at­ing at a rate unpar­al­leled in human his­to­ry. The slo­gans of our day are — Make it while you can,” Watch out for num­ber one,” Greed is good.” And so the Gov­er­nor of that prison in far-away Chi­na haunts us with his ques­tion, Is it so ter­ri­ble to be useful?” 

A Chal­lenge and an Invitation

In this ques­tion is a chal­lenge: A chal­lenge to re-eval­u­ate our assump­tions and our pri­or­i­ties; a chal­lenge to expe­ri­ence the many lit­tle deaths of going beyond our­selves; a chal­lenge to give way to the needs of others. 

But there also is an invi­ta­tion: An invi­ta­tion to drop the hor­ren­dous bur­den of always need­ing to get our own way; an invi­ta­tion to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice; an invi­ta­tion to com­pas­sion, to com­mu­ni­ty, to service. 

And so I ask you, Is it so ter­ri­ble to be useful?” 

Think of St. Fran­cis of Assisi who start­ed out his youth­ful career as the leader of a care­free, hap­py gang. Fran­cis knew how to lead and he knew how to get things done. But God got hold of young Fran­cis, and he did it through a lep­er. Lep­rosy hor­ri­fied Fran­cis. Lep­ers were repug­nant to him. They ter­ri­fied him. They made his flesh creep. They made him vom­it. He couldn’t stand to be near a lep­er and nev­er would he touch a leper. 

But God was touch­ing Fran­cis: touch­ing his heart, touch­ing his spir­i­tu­al lep­rosy. One day Fran­cis was walk­ing down a path out­side Assisi when, in the mid­dle of the path, there was a lep­er — ugly, deformed, repulsive.

Hor­ri­fied, Fran­cis start­ed to run, but some­how God touched his heart and gave him an over­whelm­ing love and com­pas­sion for that lep­er. Rather than run away, Fran­cis turned and embraced the lep­er. After the embrace the lep­er dis­ap­peared, and through­out his life St. Fran­cis believed that God had come to him in the form of that lep­er. St. Fran­cis was nev­er the same. He began to give him­self to lep­ers, and not only lep­ers but all who were cast aside. And so the great impulse to serve the bro­ken and the down-trod­den that is still a hall­mark of the Fran­cis­can move­ment had its roots in the embrace of a leper. 

I ask you, Is it so ter­ri­ble to be useful?” 

My friend, George Fooshee built up a very suc­cess­ful bill col­lec­tion agency. But in his work he has observed the trag­ic effects of exor­bi­tant debt upon thou­sands of lives. He has seen peo­ple work­ing two and three jobs just to keep up with their cred­it card pay­ments. In time, God led George to turn over his com­pa­ny to oth­ers, and he is now giv­ing him­self full-time to help peo­ple get out of debt. He teach­es bib­li­cal­ly-based finan­cial plan­ning sem­i­nars. He does finan­cial coun­sel­ing. He has devel­oped an orga­ni­za­tion that uses a step-by-step plan to get peo­ple out of debt. 

I ask you, Is it so ter­ri­ble to be useful?” 

A for­mer stu­dent of mine, Mary Ash­ley, heard me talk about Chi­na as a great fron­tier for Ser­vice and Chris­t­ian min­istry. She stud­ied hard and applied to a cross-cul­tur­al pro­gram that trained her to teach Eng­lish. With­in a year she was in North­west­ern Chi­na teach­ing Eng­lish to Chí­nese stu­dents and shar­ing her faith wher­ev­er she could. 

I ask you, Is it so ter­ri­ble to be useful?”

No, it’s not ter­ri­ble: it’s joy, it’s life, it’s ful­fill­ment. And so I urge you: Deny the ego­ism and nar­cis­sism that plague our soci­ety. Deny the greed and avarice of our day. Deny the voic­es of self­ish­ness and vest­ed inter­est. Wel­come oth­ers. Wel­come com­pas­sion. Wel­come caring. 

Sug­ges­tions for Mak­ing Our Lives Useful

But now, how do we this? How do we make our lives use­ful? How do we move from self-cen­tered­ness to oth­er-cen­tered­ness? Here are some suggestions. 

First, give your­self to God. Learn to sink down into Christ until you are com­fort­able in that pos­ture. Learn the prayer of qui­et where­by you still all human­ly-ini­ti­at­ed activ­i­ty. Take a one-day prayer retreat this month. Fast for one day this week. Read the gospel of John tomor­row. Learn to waste time for God. 

When you do, some­thing hap­pens inside. Gen­tly, almost imper­cep­ti­bly, your pri­or­i­ties change. You begin to val­ue peo­ple more than things. You begin to pay atten­tion to chil­dren. You find your­self inter­est­ed in what oth­ers are doing, gen­uine­ly inter­est­ed. In fact, peo­ple become inter­est­ing to you, all kinds of peo­ple. You love to find out their hob­bies and inter­ests and con­cerns. You’re glad to see them suc­ceed and pained when they stum­ble. With­out even real­iz­ing it, you have moved from self cen­tered­ness to other-centeredness. 

Sec­ond, give your­self to oth­ers. Take one hour each day to go the extra mile for oth­ers. Mow their lawn. Babysit their kids, shov­el the snow off their dri­ve­way. The rewards of this kind of activ­i­ty are great, but per­haps the great­est reward of all is that at last you are find­ing that you are useful. 

Third, eval­u­ate your voca­tion­al plans in the light of the good it does for peo­ple. You may have a lib­er­al arts col­lege edu­ca­tion, which means you have many options open to you that oth­ers do not have. You have been trained not for one voca­tion but to have the intel­lec­tu­al and emo­tion­al equip­ment to have many voca­tions. So why not choose the one that is going to do the most good. The Chris­t­ian wit­ness in a voca­tion is that we hon­or God in our jobs by serv­ing oth­er human beings.

In the first con­gre­ga­tion I ever pas­tored there was a per­son who had giv­en half his life to earn­ing a Ph.D. in physics. He then got a won­der­ful job at a famous think-tank where he spent all his time dream­ing up new inven­tions. Imag­ine his hor­ror the day he dis­cov­ered that 98 per­cent of his inven­tions were being used to devel­op weapons to kill oth­ers. He asked me what to do. What do you say in a trag­ic sit­u­a­tion like that? But you have time to avoid such a tragedy. So look at your voca­tion­al options and see where they will lead you. See if there isn’t a chance to be use­ful to others.

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Pub­lished in World Chris­t­ian (November/​December 1988).

Originally published October 1988