The Paper Pulpit

Playing second fiddle
Apr. 14, 2013 @ 04:58 AM

Leonard Bernstein, orchestra conductor, was once asked which instrument was the most difficult to play. He thought for a moment and said, “The second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play the second fiddle with enthusiasm — that’s a problem. And if we have no second fiddle, we have no harmony.”

It was a very keen observation about human nature, but the truth is that all of us must play second fiddle part of the time — on the athletic field, in the home, in church, and out in the big world where we work and play. Few people have a leading role, and to say this is not to speak disparagingly of supporting roles or bit parts. In a dramatic play, it takes all the actors to make the play complete. If all you saw or heard was the lead actor, the plot would be very dull indeed.

When King Saul in ancient Israel came back into Jerusalem following a huge victory, he was met by a group of young girls who were singing, “Saul has slain his thousands!” I’m sure these words were met with tremendous approval by Saul, and he probably was thinking to himself, “I’ve got to have that song written down and preserved forever.” But the stanza continued, “Saul has killed his thousands ... BUT DAVID HAS KILLED HIS TENS OF THOUSANDS.”

“That miserable shrimp!” he was probably thinking, and he proceeded to go mad with envy. He wrecked his life because his ego would not allow him to take second place to anybody. It is not easy for any of us to take second place, is it?

Several years ago, when I was pastor in Warsaw, N.C., I was asked to coach a Little League baseball team. Since I love both children and sports, I gladly consented to do this. I had absolutely no difficulty with the boys on my team. Dealing with parents whose sons were not as skilled as some other boys was a different story. One father, whose son couldn’t hit a baseball with a bat if it was as big as a basketball and thrown to him underhanded, thought his son should play every inning of every game. He was not willing for his son to play second fiddle. He did not realize that every team needs players not only on the field of play, but also on the bench and during practice sessions.

I am amused when I read newspaper accounts of a professional athlete, who makes millions of dollars every year playing a kids’ game, become unhappy and grouchy because another player signs a contract paying more money than he is getting. The problem is jealousy and selfishness. Such athletes claim they just want to get paid what they are worth – which would be much less than they were already making. Their ego will not allow them to come in second to anybody.

The most unpopular member in some families is the mother-in-law – not in all of them, of course. Brooks Hays, former U.S. Congressman from Arkansas and a former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, once said, “Behind every successful man is a loving wife ... and a surprised mother-in-law.” Mothers-in-law hear lots of things like that, but let it be said that most mothers-in-law are outstanding. After all, they were mothers before they became mothers-in-law.

Still, the oldest joke in the world was told about a mother-in-law. A primitive woman runs into her cave and cries out to her caveman husband, who is asleep on a bearskin rug, “Come quickly! A saber-toothed tiger is chasing my mother!” The unimpressed husband rolls over to go back to sleep as he says, “What has the tiger ever done for me? Why should I save him from your mother?”

General Robert E. Lee knew the value of playing second fiddle. This great general never stopped being a true southern gentleman. Once, while riding on a train to Richmond, he was seated at the rear of the car. All the other seats were filled with officers and soldiers. A poorly dressed, elderly woman boarded the coach at a rural station and, finding no seat offered to her, she trudged down the aisle toward the back of the car. Immediately, Lee stood up and offered her his seat. The other men then all arose one after another and offered the general his seat.

“No, gentlemen,” he replied. “If there are no seats for this lady, there can be none for me!” He knew how to play second fiddle.

The inability to play second fiddle when called for is a sign of selfishness and insecurity. Humility and the ability to give strong consideration to the needs of others are signs of self-respect. Lots of people need to learn that.

The Rev. D.E. Parkerson is retired pastor of First Baptist Church of Sanford.