Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Of Humility and Wolves

I work with a great group of people. I recently told my wife how incredibly smart each of these individuals is. Ever my greatest cheerleader, my wife insisted that I fit well with this group as far as intelligence goes. "Everyone I know that knows you thinks you are smart," she insisted.

I didn't grow up that way. I can't remember a time during my childhood when I didn't feel intellectually and physically inferior. Maybe it was just the fact that I had two older brothers and that part of the purpose of an older brother seems to be to make their younger siblings feel inferior to them.

Another theory I have is that Mom and Dad didn't require much of me because they were numb after dealing with my older brothers — one that was ever managerial enough to challenge parental assumptions and one that happily took a devil-give-a-care approach to life. As long as I didn't cause too much trouble, I could slide by with a lot.

In junior high it was fine if I got anything above a D+. Which is good, because middling grades were about all I could produce. As one of the youngest kids in my grade, I struggled to compete physically and academically with my classmates from first grade onward. Ever one of the last picked for teams (for games I never wanted to play anyway), I also frequently had little clue what was going on in school subjects.

None of my teachers or classmates seemed to mistake me for being very bright. In fact, I can remember teachers bluntly suggesting otherwise to my parents. They seemed to have no compunction about doing so in my presence, apparently certain that I was unable to understand what they were talking about.

Then a funny thing happened during my sophomore year in high school. It was like somebody turned a switch in my head and things that had mystified me began to make sense. I started being able to get my work done, often without having to bring schoolwork home. I remember how shocked I was when I was notified that I would receive an award for having been on the honor roll six terms in a row. But I still somehow felt stupid compared to my peers.

Humility is often misunderstood to be equivalent to self deprecation. Humility is an appropriate estimation of one's own importance. Both arrogance and self-bashing are at the opposite end of the spectrum from humility, given that both are wild distortions of the truth.

Nowadays it is not uncommon for me to hear from both direct and indirect sources what a great guy I am. While I appreciate the positive strokes, I am more aware of the reality of my character.

Consider last Sunday, for example. I became angry with my youngest son for behaving in a way that I felt was inappropriate. I lost my temper and cursed at him. At church. In sacrament meeting. Moments after I had made a covenant to take upon myself the name of my Savior, Jesus Christ, and to keep his commandments.

No, I know how broken I am, how prone to failure and mistakes I am. C.S. Lewis said that when he got to thinking of himself as a rather fine chap, that was undoubtedly the time when he was in fact at his worst. He wrote, "The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object."

While unselfishness is a worthy goal, I do not believe it is entirely possible (or even a worthy goal) to "forget about yourself altogether." I think rather that a proper regard for oneself is healthy and is essential to serving both humanity and Deity as well as possible.

Nor do I agree that it is appropriate to think of oneself "as a small, dirty object." How can you think of yourself in that manner without also considering others — fellow beings created in the image of God — as equally decrepit. On our own we are certainly nothing (see Moses 1:10), although, we pretend otherwise. Bill Cosby explained it this way:
God made a tree and said it was (pause) Good. God made a rabbit and said it was (pause) Good.
Man made the refrigerator and said it was Amazing. Man made the car and said it was Awesome or Fabulous.
We are fanatical about our creations. Praising what we have made. Fantastic, Excellent, Awesome, Fabulous, Amazing, etc.
God made the world, and said it was (pause) good.
The refrigerator eventually broke down The car eventually blew its engine. But the Tree still stands, and the rabbit still hops.
What is our definition of Good vs. Great? GOD is great. Man was only Good.
But that's just it. In connection with God, humans have the power to become godlike. C.S. Lewis said, "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship...."

This seems to stand at odds with Lewis' suggestion that we see ourselves as small, dirty objects. I think he is trying to convey the idea of our duality: the "natural man" that is "an enemy to god" (see Mosiah 3:19) and the heir of godhood (see Moses 1:39) within each of us.

Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf disapproved of the practice of criticizing and belittling oneself, saying that this can lead to self hatred (see Oct. 2010 general conference talk). In what manner will we love our neighbors as we love ourselves (see Mark 10:30) if we hate ourselves?

An old Cherokee legend tells of a man telling his grandson that it is as if two wolves are fighting within each of us. One is evil and the other is good. When the grandson asks which wolf will win the fight, the old man replies, "The one that you feed."

We all take opportunities to feed the evil wolf — the natural man — as I did last Sunday. But there are also boundless opportunities for us to feed the good wolf — the spark of divinity within each of us. I make those choices moment by moment and so do you. When the good wolf wins we win. This happens when we choose to "yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit," put off the natural man "through the atonement of Christ the Lord", and become "full of love" (Mosiah 3:19).

With each passing moment I am choosing which wolf to feed. Which one will win? That's up to me.

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