humility-1Sometimes several different threads from very different sources coalesce into a single theme. I’ve just finished reading one of my daughter’s library books, the final in a teen/ young adult science fiction trilogy. In a particularly chilling part of the story the main character Tom has been kidnapped. He has initial contact with a tutor at his military academy via a neural processor, with which the brains of the students and tutor have been augmented, before the kidnapper blocks the connection. This is the information the tutor gives Tom:

“Do you know about neural sovereignty Tom? … Our neural processors – Vigilant-grade neural processors – work in tandem with the human brain. That means your processor, when it’s inserted, maps your brain. It learns exactly where it accepts your conscious thought commands from. … It learns to obey your brain. That’s what happens when you first get your processor. So let’s say I hook a neural wire between your processor and mine … I couldn’t interface and take control of you like you’re a standard machine, because your processor can distinguish between my neurons and yours. It knows your neurons usually give it commands, and mine don’t, so it will reject anything that comes from me. But there’s a way around that. … Cooperation. If I hook my neural processor into yours and order you to interface with a machine you won’t simply interface on my command because your processor doesn’t acknowledge my neural sovereignty. However, let’s say I order you to interface with a machine and you cooperate: you choose to accept the command and interface with the machine. If you do that your processor begins a learning process. It will learn that it’s supposed to receive commands from my neurons as well as yours. That means it can learn to acknowledge neural sovereignty from me as well as you. This is very important for you to understand: if you let Joseph Vengerov gain neural sovereignty over your processor, he’ll be able to use your own processor to control you. … If he ever gets neural sovereignty, you will never get that back from him. … You don’t think you’re going to do anything he says, but there are ways of manipulating you, coercing you, playing into your needs or desires. There’s no scale here Tom. Something so minor as telling you to blink, and you obeying that command, begins the learning process. …” from Catalyst by S.J. Kincaid

I was reminded of Ziff’s recent post about conformity, and in which he references a Mormon Journeys podcast discussing differentiation. He quotes Rachel Brown from the podcast as saying:

“There’s not a lot of cultural room in the LDS tradition for differentiation of an individual. It’s almost like we’re set up to never differentiate as adults. And by “differentiate” I mean a couple of things, but mainly the idea that you can choose your own set of beliefs and values.”

He goes on to discuss how do we distinguish between conformity to a social norm or obedience to a commandment, and that “A complicating factor is that the line between social norms and commandments isn’t always bright. … To further complicate the issue, occasionally a social norm gets upgraded to a commandment.”

I commented as follows:

“Growing up in the church I always loved my father’s non-conformist streaks. And on this I’m my father’s daughter. The only place he wore a white shirt was the temple. He had fancy waistcoats, colourful ties, and even bow ties. And he’d grow a beard, a moustache, even mutton chop whiskers as the fancy took him. And he was a deeply spiritual man who when warned by the spirit, somewhat regretfully, that he was going to have to shave off his beard did so the evening before then Elder Packer demanded it from the pulpit during a stake conference in the 70s.”

Yes. That demand from Elder Packer, enforcement of a social norm or upgrading to commandment, what was that? As these things happen sometimes, I was involved in a conversation with a family member who recalled that very event just this week. They also remembered my father had shaved his beard beforehand, and must therefore have been in tune. They also recalled that another previously bearded member attended church the following week clean-shaven. They suggested that these things are an opportunity to exercise or demonstrate humility by obedience to small things when larger things may be just too hard. I responded that it sounded to me that some people just enjoyed a power trip. “If it’s a small thing that doesn’t matter, why do you want me to do it?” would be my natural response. Maybe I am being a little too hard on Elder Packer here. I’ve always been extremely leery of the following idea:

“Now, the key to our freedom lies in an apparent paradox: we must give up our freedom voluntarily in order to know the freedom that only Christ can give.” Jack H. Goaslind The Rewards for Obedience  BYU Speeches Sep 26, 1982

In his address Elder Goaslind also quotes Elder Packer as follows:

“Perhaps the greatest discovery of my life, without question the greatest commitment, came when finally I had the confidence in God that I would loan or yield my agency to him—without compulsion or pressure, without any duress, as a single individual alone, by myself, no counterfeiting, nothing expected other than the privilege. In a sense, speaking figuratively, to take one’s agency, that precious gift which the scriptures make plain is essential to life itself, and say, “I will do as you direct,” is afterward to learn that in so doing you possess it all the more. . . .

“We should put ourselves in a position before our Father in heaven and say, individually, “I do not want to do what I want to do. I want to do what thou wouldst have me do.”[“Obedience,” BYU Speeches of the Year, 7 Dec. 1971, p. 4]”

At least Elder Packer specifies to whom he loans or yields his agency: to God. That’s very different, in my own mind, to expecting obedience to Elder Packer’s direction on what might be deemed small things in a stake conference. I have to wonder why we fought a war in heaven over the importance of agency, if we’re going to abdicate all responsibility here on earth. My father obeyed the spirit and shaved off his beard, prior to the conference. Sometime later he regrew one. I don’t believe Elder Packer’s stance on beards ever changed. I regard my father’s experience of the spirit to be a merciful warning that protected him. It meant that he was not in a position where he would be seen to need to obey Elder Packer’s directive. Unfortunately the idea that any pronouncement by a general authority is de facto the word of God is all too prevalent in my view. Towards the end of last year we were visitors in a gospel doctrine class where the teacher stated we were to have faith in prophets. I protested. Last I checked it was faith in Christ we were meant to be preaching. And at the end of January a speaker in our sacrament meeting said isn’t it great we have prophets, so we just need to do what they tell us and don’t have to think about it. I’m not sure the Nuremberg defence is going to play well at the final judgement. Many members seem to be habituated to simply following orders, the risk Tom faces so starkly outlined in the opening quote.

I have always bristled against an authoritarian style of church leadership. Short term it may yield results, but I don’t believe it helps anyone in the long run, and can prime for abuse:

“At it’s most transparent, authoritarian style is simply dictating to others what they will do. This has been called the ‘drill sergeant style.’ But an authoritarian style can be less obvious. Being ‘an authority’ in a relationship is a way of disguising personal wishes as principles. First comes an insistence on framing matters of preference or opinion as matters of right or wrong. Second comes the insistence that the primary aggressor’s preferences and opinions are the right ones. Third comes an insistence that the survivor do “what is right.” This is a particularly effective and devastating form of abuse against survivors that are dedicated to doing what is right, such as survivors raised in strong faith traditions.” from retrieved 08/02/17

I’m much happier with the description of humility outlined by Elder Stephen E Snow, which focuses on our own behaviour and our attitude to others:

“The Savior taught His followers that they must humble themselves as a little child in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven. As we raise our own children, we need to help them remain humble as they mature into adulthood. We do not do this by breaking their spirit through unkindness or by being too harsh in our discipline. While nurturing their self-confidence and self-esteem, we need to teach them the qualities of selflessness, kindness, obedience, lack of pride, civility, and unpretentiousness. We need them to learn to take joy in the successes of siblings and friends. President Howard W. Hunter taught that “our genuine concern should be for the success of others.” If not, our children can become obsessed with self-promotion and outdoing others, jealousy, and resentment for the triumphs of peers. I’m grateful for a mother who, when seeing I was becoming too full of myself as a boy, would say, “Son, a little bit of humility right now would go a long way.”

But humility is not something reserved to be taught only to children. We must all strive to become more humble. Humility is essential to gain the blessings of the gospel. Humility enables us to have broken hearts when we sin or make mistakes and makes it possible for us to repent. Humility enables us to be better parents, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, neighbors and friends.

On the other hand, unnecessary pride can dissolve family relationships, break up marriages, and destroy friendships. It is especially important to remember humility when you feel contention rising in your home. Think of all the heartache you can avoid by humbling yourself to say, “I’m sorry”; “That was inconsiderate of me”; “What would you like to do?”; “I just wasn’t thinking”; or “I’m very proud of you.” If these little phrases were humbly used, there would be less contention and more peace in our homes.” Steven E. Snow, Be Thou Humble  GC April 2016

When it comes to our humbling ourselves as a little child I am always reminded that children ask why. Their humility comes in recognising that they do not know and expressing that they are willing to learn, not in obeying every whim without question.

  • Do you believe we can learn humility by obedience in small “unimportant” things? If so how and why?
  • Do you think there are dangers to demanding compliance about things that are unimportant? Or do you think the small things are important and why?
  • What do you think about the idea that we should yield our agency?
  • How do you feel about authority?