Nebraska Blue Print, March 1941

The "Prima Donna" Complex

By O.J. Ferguson

               The phrase which constitutes the title of this article challenged my attention recently as I read a little leaflet that came to my desk from the pen of Dr. F. M. Eliot of Boston. Dr. Eliot is a Unitarian minister who formerly lived in St. Paul, Minn., and in the occasional contacts which I have had with him in the American Interprofessional Institute I have learned that he is a man of parts. His thoughts are worth rethinking. May I, from my own experience, enlarge upon his reverie? I begin by relating a
story which he tells.

Mozart had attained the dignity of sixteen years. He had been making public appearances for ten years; composing since he was four. In the poverty of his home he worked at any musical task that he could get. A letter to his
sister describes in uncomplaining terms the din about him in the rooming house?a voice teacher, a piano teacher, a violinist, an oboe player?in spite of which medley he declared, "It's great for composing! One gets so many ideas!"

Now that spirit is not the prima donna complex! The latter is that state of mind which a nervous self-centered musical artist achieves when she gets crosswise with all the world, when her claws begin to show, and she is ready to pounce upon her nearest friend in accusation, recrimination, and denunciation. When all the world is at fault except the poor, little
misunderstood "me." When she, the greatest and best cannot perform because of the cruelties of the world! "Ah me! My bleeding heart!"

"Ah?" bosh! Doesn't it revolt one?

But, let me think. Aren't the rest of us inclined to look down our noses occasionally and take on a bit of that p.d. complex? Isn't it very easy, --yes, very common, for us to explain our own shortcomings as results of some other person's imperfections? Isn't someone else usually involved in our failures? Isn't it the other fellow's fault?

How frequently I hear the explanation, "My algebra is pretty poor,--I had a poor teacher." Or, "I can't get anything out of that prof." Students are like that.

Maybe we teachers are not free from the complaint either. "If I only had a good class of students instead of such dumbbells!" "How can I get results when the University requires such a heavy teaching load of me?" "How can I make any headway professionally, when we have no special funds or laboratories for research?" "If we had new buildings, new equipment, new class room facilities, how easily I could do good work!"

And you fellows out on the job,--"The company doesn't pay me to improve my work. I'm in a rut. Let the office do the worrying!" "What a bunch of 'dead ones' I'm working with. Does everyone expect me to do it all?" "That chap must have had a lot of luck to get where he is! Lady Luck never played me up that way!"

I'm afraid this philosophy of life has even invaded our national thinking. "The sacred rights of 'our class' are being attacked and destroyed by other classes." ?Labor is set against capital, and capital against labor. Labor itself is divided and each group claims the aggregation of all the virtues, and therefore the God-given right to be exalted above the rest of mankind.

Men and women are being taught that the world owes them a living, not that they owe the world a life.

Shortly after the first World War I received from Austria a personal appeal from a student who asked me to contribute to his support in order that he might remain in school without working,--in order that he might be given the advantages to which his "quality" entitled him. No glimmer of doubt appeared in his letter but that his superiority put all others in his debt.
His was the right to ask expectantly for succor?(and I call your attention to the fact that the verb succor etymologically means to run to the aid of). The p.d. complex of superiority, preeminence, exaltation, carrying with it as a clear corollary the necessity for the homage and tribute of all other men!

It is high time we begin to reorganize our thinking. We should clarify our ideas of responsibility and service. The world owes no man a living. It doesn't even owe him as an individual an education. And when he receives from the community a high-school training, from the state a college course, his own indebtedness increases with each step he takes, till he is
profoundly obligated to society for her gifts. Few men ever succeed in paying any appreciable part of this debt. The only way we have of making even partial restitution is by fitting ourselves into our surroundings,  with all of their limitations, hindrances, oppositions, with all of their crudities and simplicities, with all of their discomforts and dangers, --fitting ourselves to our present conditions, here, now, so fully and so successfully that with all of our talents and powers we can become servants of men.

Don't even let a little of the prima donna complex infect you! It interferes with business.