Saturday, September 10, 2011

There is Nothing Noble in False Modesty or Self-Deprecation

In thinking about my New Year's Resolution for this month (to "recognize more fully that I am not better than others"), I batted around multiple ideas for this weekend's post.  In the end, I found a post I wrote almost exactly a year-and-a-half ago.  I am re-posting it, with some parenthetical modifications to fit what I have been thinking about for the past week - but I am copying a comment by Molly on that post, since I think it is profound.

In Screwtape Letters, Screwtape says true humility is not a pretty woman trying to believe she is ugly or a clever man smart (some sexism here, but I give him a pass for when it was written and that he was a bachelor for so long). True humility is building the best cathedral in the world and knowing it is the best, and rejoicing in that fact the same as if someone else had built it.

With that introduction:
The fundamental point of my resolutions posts this month has been that charity is measured largely by how one views one's own abilities and knowledge - but, more precisely, that "vaunting" one's self and being "puffed up" are manifestations of one's view of one's self relative to others. In summary, the lack of charity in the manifestation of vaunting one's self and being puffed up is measured by how one raises himself above others - how one views her own abilities and/or knowledge in relation to others - and, again, more precisely, how one must devalue another's abilities and/or knowledge in order to value one's own more than is "correct".

(This applies exactly to the idea of recognizing that, at the most basic level, in the eyes of God, I am not any better than others.

The following, I believe, is self-evident, but I still believe it needs to be said:

It is very easy when thinking of this juxtaposition to conclude that self-confidence stands in opposition to charity - that if one is aware of and admits to a difference in the abilities and knowledge among people, and if part of that awareness and admission is that one's ability and/or understanding is greater than another's, then one is not being charitable. However, this stands in direct opposition to both common sense and one of the central themes of scripture and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Again, the key is not a recognition of differences in ability and understanding, but rather it is not allowing that recognition to lead to condescension and condemnation.

(This also applies to members of the LDS Church directly, as it is very easy and "natural" to equate understanding of "The Restored Gospel" and membership in "the only true and living church" with being "better than others".

In case anyone is tempted to dispute the title of this post, simply stop and realize that the parable of the talents explicitly ends in the Lord rewarding those who recognized their abilities to multiply what they were given - and in the Lord taking what he had given from the one who feared his Lord and did not magnify what he had been given. It rarely is phrased this way, but the two who were rewarded had the ability, understanding and self-confidence necessary to do what they knew the Lord desired of them; he who was not rewarded lacked the ability and understanding to do so - perhaps due directly to a lack of self-confidence, manifested in fear.

(I listened to someone speak in Sacrament Meeting recently and cringed inwardly when she said feelings of self-confidence were not of God - that "self-esteem" was a damnable philosophy of men that breeds pride and arrogance and distances us from our Father in Heaven.  First, I don't believe that, at all - and, second, it is guaranteed to be misunderstood and hurtful to many who hear it.

There is nothing wrong with me admitting and openly stating that I have been blessed with a natural ability to understand mathematical concepts - or to see how various pieces of a puzzle fit together (both physical puzzles and conceptual puzzles) - or to find joy in simple things - or to see the good in others. Those are personal strengths, and it would be dishonest or disingenuous to state otherwise - and, at the very least, I would be naive and misguided to think that all share those strengths equally. It is not the recognition of my own strengths that constitutes being puffed up and vaunting of myself; it is the over-valuing and/or over-estimation of my own strengths and the under-valuing and/or under-estimation of others' strengths on which Paul focuses in I Corinthians 13.

Part of the message of the Sermon on the Mount, on which I focused for two years, is the challenge to put conscious effort into understanding those characteristics that comprise completion, wholeness and full development - and to pursue acquiring them in order to glorify God. That entire process requires a level of confidence - and confidence is another way to phrase faith and hope. Of course, ultimate confidence in this process is pointed toward God, but one of the uniquely empowering aspects of Mormonism is the addition of an element of confidence in our own status as children of God - confidence that humans really are "worthy" of "the grace that so fully he proffers us" (based simply on our shared heritage of sons and daughters of divinity, not based on "individual worth" as distinguished from others' worth).

There is nothing noble, in my opinion, in false modesty or self-deprecation. Those things are not the same as meekness and humility. The former are facades; the latter are internal characteristics. The former are deceptive; the latter simply are descriptive. In that light, I believe it is much better to offer a simple, sincere "Thank you" when complimented than to deflect honest expressions with canned phrases that reject the sincerity of others' words - thus devaluing their praise. False modesty, as a way to avoid openly vaunting one's self, only masks the puffiness that exists hidden inside and is, therefore, hypocrisy.

Postscript: I have felt the need to add one "disclaimer" - and it is an important one, I believe:

There is a fine line between proper and realistic self-confidence and reckless self-confidence. The latter (recklessness) often appears in the religious as a belief that the Lord will not let anything bad happen to you - that you can do anything without concern for the potential consequences - that you deserve to have good things happen to you and that nothing is an un-necessary risk.

(The proliferation of multi-level marketing and bankruptcy in Utah points to this too common tendency to equate "perceived righteousness" with "being favored of God in ALL things" - and it is a reflection of twisted pride, imo.) 

There is realistically being aware of one's strengths AND weaknesses, and there is being aware of one's strengths and blind to one's weaknesses - and there is being aware of one's strengths and blind to others' weaknesses (which is a weakness, in and of itself). I am not advocating blind and/or all-encompassing confidence in this post. Even Ammon gloried "in the Lord" - and humans have a tendency to think the Lord will help them get whatever THEY want, rather than what HE wants to accomplish through them.


Gwennaëlle said...

To me righteous self-esteem implies pride in what you've done and gratitude as well as acknowledging who has helped you and that it would have been much harder to accomplish anything without the help you got.
See French has 500 000 words when English has 800 000. English is much more precise than French (as well as much more flexible and that's why you have so many words but this is not the point of what I want to say) but we make a difference in this kind of concept and I like it.

We use the word "fierté" for righteous pride and "orgueil" for this kind of pride we are asked to leave behind. I like that we don't make a confusion between the two. the problem is that the term "estime personnelle" is a very modern concept (just the XXth century) that French have a hard time with. They often mistake; fierté, orgueil and estime de soi (or estime personnelle).

Self-esteem DOES come from God because it is a reminiscent memory of who we are. The trap is to let ourself slide into orgueil because we don't understand where this feeling comes from and since we're looking for an explanation we are easily tempted to find answers in this life that actually have nothing to do with the truth.

Papa D said...

Thanks, Gwen. I really like that distinction. I also really like the following:

"Self-esteem DOES come from God because ***it is a reminiscent memory of who we are***. The trap is to let ourself slide into orgueil because we don't understand where this feeling comes from and since ***we're looking for an explanation we are easily tempted to find answers in this life that actually have nothing to do with the truth***."

Gwennaëlle said...

er...i just remembered that I have a talk to give tomorrow on the subject of humility. I will definitely use what I wrote here as well as some scriptures specialy Alma 26:12 to help explain my point. In this scripture what Alma is feeling is fierté which can lead either to orgueil or gratitude. He choses gratitude.

jen said...

I love this!
For a long time, I made the mistake of believing that if I loved myself, I was being prideful. If I saw the good in me, that was bad. If I did something kind for myself, I was being selfish.

My addiction was my self-denial, and my self-denial nearly killed me.

God is Love. Love of me and love of others. I also really loved the quote from Molly.

Thank you!