“If you ain’t first, you’re last. That phrase is trademarked and not to be used without the express permission of Ricky Bobby Inc.” Taladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
I’m not proud of it, but Taladega Nights, the movie in which Will Ferrell plays a NASCAR driver who says grace to eight-pound, five-ounce baby Jesus in his gold diaper, is in my top five favorite films. It’s so dumb, it’s funny. Or is it dumb after all?
Ricky Bobby has based his whole life on a phrase that his derelict race-care driving father told him when he was thirteen years old. After ten years of being absent, his dad Reese shows up at Career Day, and while being muscled out by security for saying inappropriate things in class, he yells to Ricky, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
Ricky grows up to be a top professional driver, and trademarks that phrase. He lives by it. He even gets his loyal best friend Cal to do a slingshot move in every race so Ricky can win. He never even considers reciprocating. Because if Ricky isn’t first, he’s last.
This lifestyle, of course, leads to a literal crash and a personal melt-down. At this point, his dad shows up again and throws another wrench in his son’s life, but this time, maybe it’s for his own good. Ricky yells that he’s based his whole life on his dad’s advice, and here’s Reese Bobby’s response:
“Ah hell Ricky. I was high when I said that. That doesn’t even make any sense. You can be second. You can be third, you can be fourth. Hell, you can even be fifth.”
And it’s at this point in the movie that you might want to ask yourself, what bad advice have I based my life on?
I think we live in a “If you’re not first, you’re last culture.” We worship experts and influencers, millionaires and celebrities – even Christian ones. Every woman at some point in her life has struggled with the fact that she’s not the top of the class, or the prettiest girl in the room. And then some of us become mothers and we have to wrestle with hoping our daughters and sons are the best on the field, get the solo in the school play, and win the award from the principal.
But what Reese said when he was sober is true: You can be second. You can even be fifth. There isn’t only one place that matters. The Bible says it this way: that God has knit together the body of Christ so that each person has equal worth, though they may not receive an equal amount of worldly honor. In Galatians 5:6, Paul says that status of the world means nothing, but “the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love.”
One of my mom friends and I have been working this truth out in our kids’ lives these last couple of months. (I’m going to call her Sue, to protect anonymity of her son.) Her son recently had a major sports injury just before his senior year, that derailed his plans to try to muscle into a top school and sports program. It broke her heart.
But over the summer, her son found Jesus and made his faith his own for the first time in a significant way. He started to look at his goals and realized some of the things he was reaching for were going to put him in an environment where it would be hard to live in integrity and serve God. He’s changed his plans entirely. And though Sue has been regularly weeping with joy over her son’s faith – which is the desire of her heart for him – in honest moments she’ll confess she occasionally laments the lack of first place in the world. We talk it through. It helps.
My daughter recently just dropped one of her three advanced high school courses in order to have more balance in her life – which I believe is absolutely in God’s will for her. But we (her dad, me, and her) all had to wrestle with letting go. She won’t be first in her high school class. But that does NOT mean she’ll be last. It means she will have more joy and margin in her adolescent life than her mama did, and hopefully, not have a mental health crisis when she finally decides to slow down at 30 like I did as well.
Jesus commands us to do something radical: to change the world with our lives. But thankfully, we don’t have to change the WHOLE world. Just our little corner of it, our way, constantly fighting the bad advice the world gives us to live by: that stress and striving and being better than everyone else are the only ways to succeed. Let go of something today. Be content to hold the place God has put you in. It’s a place of honor.