Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Praise -- Potential Poison

The other day I overheard a phone conversation between Jo Anne and a good friend. Jo Anne said, "I am married to a model husband." Well, she has never told me that, but to hear her make that statement to her friend was most gratifying. I sort of thought she was telling the truth. Later that day I was looking up some words in my online dictionary and thought I might as well look up the word "model" while I was at it. One of the definitions that caught my immediate attention was, "A cheap imitation." Surely that wasn't the definition Jo Anne was using in describing me to her friend was it? Or was it? I don't think I want to know.

In giving or receiving praise and compliments we need to be extremely careful I believe. A father had just finished giving a little lecture to his young teenage son regarding being kind to all people, using tact, and complementary language in interacting with others. Soon after the lecture the boy went to his first dance. He had only been gone a short time when he returned home with a black eye. His dad asked him what had happened and the boy said he had tried to follow his advice and while dancing with a girl simply said, "For a fat girl you don't sweat very much."

Over the years since my accident I have had more people say nice things about me and to me than ever ought to be. While it is gratifying to be the recipient of such kind words and sentiments, there is also a danger associated with it. To me, the greatest danger is to begin to believe that what others are saying is true and then worse than that to begin to desire to be recognized and to receive the compliments and adulation of others. We may be tempted to believe we are actually something very special and indispensable.

President Hinckley in giving counsel to some young missionaries about to enter the mission field warned them as follows: "It is so very important that you do not let praise and adulation go to your head. Adulation is poison. You better never lose sight of the fact that the Lord put you where you are according to His design, which you don’t understand. Acknowledge the Lord for whatever good you can accomplish and give Him the credit and the glory and [do] not worry about that coming to yourself." [Ensign, February, 2001]

Inscribed in Mortar Board Court at The Ohio State University is the following anonymous poem entitled "The Torch".

The God of the great endeavor gave me a torch to bear.
I lifted it high above me in the dark and murky air.
Straightway with loud hosannas the crowd acclaimed its light,
And followed me as I carried my torch through the dark and starless night.
Til mad with peoples’ praises and drunken with vanity,
I forgot 'twas the torch that drew them and fancied they followed me.
Then my arm grew sore and weary upholding the shining load,
And my tired feet went stumbling over the hilly road.
I fell with the torch beneath me, in a moment the flame was out.
But lo, from the throng a stripling sprang forth with a mighty shout,
Caught up the torch as it smoldered and lifted it high again,
Til fanned by the winds of heaven it fired the souls of men.
As I lay alone in the darkness, the feet of the trampling crowd,
Passed over and far beyond me, their praises proclaimed aloud.
And I learned in the deepening shadow this glorious verity,
‘Tis the torch the people follow, who ere the bearer be.
I read this poem for the first time as a young returned missionary and have pondered its message over the years because I believe it cuts to the heart of a potential problem that we all can experience in our lives. I have thought how important it is as we are called upon to be torch bearers that we always have uppermost in our minds the fact that it is "the torch the people follow whoever the bearer may be." I believe there is always the temptation in any calling we may have in life or in the Church, where we are called upon to "carry the shining load" for a period of time, to get confused in thinking that we are something special as torch bearers. As teachers, or serving in high profile administrative positions in the world or in the Church, if we are not always sensitive to the fact that it is the torch the people follow, we may let the people's praises turn our heads and fill us with vanity. We may begin to think that as a torch bearer we are more important than the flame we are asked to carry and eventually pass on to another.

The Scriptures, as well as secular history, are replete with examples of torchbearers who began to feel they were more important than the message/the torch. Saul, David, Solomon, and most of the Kings of Israel and Judah fell into this trap. Very few people are able to handle well the praise and adulation that comes with the offices of King, President, or dictator for example. I have marveled about how vain and egotistical people like "Herod the Great," or "Suleiman the Magnificent" may have been to have allowed themselves to be given such titles. For some reason I just can't imagine Jo Anne and my children calling me, "Jack the Magnificent," although it does have a nice ring to it.

We see movie stars, athletes, and high-powered academicians for example who at times buy into the praise of the world and whose lives are inevitably destroyed because of it. Most of us will never be Presidents, movie stars, or world-class professional athletes, however, whatever our calling in life, the temptation always exists to strive to be "popular" and in doing so to get in the way of the "torch" it has fallen our lot to bear.

Being paralyzed from the neck down and living on life support for so many years has somehow propelled me into the spotlight and brought me a certain amount of notoriety that I could never have envisioned at the time of my accident. I know that in and of myself I do not have the strength, power, or intelligence to have endured so successfully this catastrophic injury for so many years. I feel the Lord has called me to carry "a shining load" as a testimony to others "... [that] I [the Lord] will ... ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs... and this will I do that ye may stand [or in my case sit] as [a witness] for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions." [Mosiah 24:14]

I know that in and of myself I am nothing, and hopefully will always realize that I have a special mission to testify to others that God does visit his people in their afflictions and will strengthen them spiritually that their burdens may be made light and easy to bear.

The Lord has humbled me every day that I have lived on life support. A number of times I could have gone into the spirit world but thankfully have been rejected each time. For some reason I don't feel badly about being a "reject" from the spirit world however.

Because of my condition I am very sensitive to the truthfulness of the words of King Benjamin who in describing to his people how utterly dependent they were on God each day of their lives said, "... He [God] is preserving your lives from day to day by lending you breath that you may live and move according to your own will and is even sustaining you from one moment to another..." [Mosiah 2:20]

I pray that I may never be so arrogant as to believe I have some super strength and courage that has carried me through these many years of paralysis. I do know though, as Paul wrote to the Phillipians, "I can do all things through Christ which Strengtheneth me." [Phillipians 4:13]

I try to keep the words of President Hinckley uppermost in my mind and heart when receiving what I consider to be unwarranted praise from others: "... Adulation is poison. You better never lose sight of the fact that the Lord put you where you are according to His design, which you don’t understand. Acknowledge the Lord for whatever good you can accomplish and give Him the credit and the glory and [do] not worry about that coming to yourself."



Dolly said...

I'm slowly learning the lesson that appearance has little to do with my mission here on earth. Service is such a perfect way to help others and feel good about our talents. My focus should be on helping others!

Dean and Elaine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dean and Elaine said...

I remember you coming to our mission in LA and talking to the missionaries when my husband served as president there from 1999
to 2002. We loved it! My brother, Tony Davis, and our good friend, Jim Ritchie, always share your "observations" with us and we so enjoy them! So much good "food for thought!" We are happy that you've written a book and are anxious to buy it. Thanks for all of your wonderful and helpful advice.

elkins said...

I love it when our friend, Jim Ritchie posts your "observations".
I copy them, have them in a file and do send them to my family for their learning, and use parts of them for thoughts at meetings. I already have your blog in my favorites. It's easier to copy though, when on an email. Thanks so much for all your great insights that help our lives.

Saunja said...

Your thoughts uplift me and help me.

Debra said...

I really appreciate this "observation" for a variety of reasons. I have often wondered why I have always been uncomfortable and often feel awkward when receiving compliments, never knowing how to respond without sounding conceited or something like that. Then I read an article relating to this very same topic, and it shared that people just want you to know they care about you and your contributions.... so simply replying with, "So kind of you to say so", is not only an appropriate response but generates a sense of gratitude that is important to convey to someone who just wants you to know they appreciate you. I liked that advice very much and committed to responding that way next time I received a compliment. When I uttered that very response at the next opportunity, it was received with a beaming smile by the recipient who in turn said back to me, "thank you, and your welcome!"