"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
June 4, 2009
There is no shame in humility
by Orson Scott Card

Imagine two sacrament meeting talks, each beginning with one of the following sentences:

"I feel very humble to be called upon to speak to you today."

"I feel very proud to be called upon to speak to you today."

Have you ever noticed that they are almost identical in meaning? The first one suggests that the speaker feels unworthy to speak to this group; the second one suggests that the speaker felt unworthy to speak, but having been given the assignment, is now proud.

In both cases, the speaker is saying that by speaking to this audience, he has been raised above his ordinary level.

However, the core meaning of both is: Wow, look at me! I'm giving a talk!

Wouldn't a truly humble person begin by talking about the gospel, and not by talking about himself?

That's a game we can all play: You're Not As Humble As You Think! It's a game in which everyone loses. And then there's the dumbest version of the game: You're Not As Humble As Me! Imagine how proud you'd be to come in first.

These are words that have almost lost their meaning, because in America, where the Church originated, and therefore in the Church as a whole, we don't have a rigid class system.

When the Bible was translated into English, everyone knew what it meant to be "humble" and "proud." The lower class was, by definition, humble. They were poor; they were in bondage or near bondage to someone else, required to obey the commands of others, and to live their life in dependency.

The upper class was, by definition, proud -- lifted up above others. So the scriptural admonition to be humble meant for us to treat others with courtesy and not put on airs as if we thought ourselves better than others.

A poor man was proud if he attempted to lift himself up above his station, or failed to show proper respect for his betters.

A rich man was proud if he lorded it over others and did not deign to treat those beneath him with courtesy and respect.

We've been watching the audition rounds of So You Think You Can Dance. If you haven't seen the show, the format is for an auditioner to perform, and then face a panel or three or four judges to hear their critique of his or her work. Then they are either dropped from the competition, sent on to a second round of auditions, or advanced directly to the eliminations in Las Vegas.

A couple of times this season, a contestant began to listen to the first judge's critique, caught the negative drift, and interrupted the judge with a kind of arrogant disdain. "I thought I did fine," is the drift of it, or "you just don't understand the kind of thing I do."

Both times, the judges reacted with shock. "I think you're being very rude," said judge Nigel Lythgoe. "I think you're being rude," said one contestant.

In another case, another judge said, "I was going to put you through to the next round, but now I see that you can't take a note. You'd be impossible to work with."

And that's the crux of the matter. These proud contestants cannot bear to hear themselves criticized. They immediately leap to their own defense. The result is that they are, in fact, impossible to teach.

So You Think You Can Dance is a show where contestants who fail in one season have often come back the next, after working very hard to address issues the judges raised with them. Some have then made it onto the show and have come very close to winning.

And these judges are sharp -- well worth listening to. But they are not always polite. When a dancer is not very good, they are sometimes quite condescending or scornful.

So the proud contestant who refuses to listen often feels justified because of the rudeness of the judges. But their position really is lofty -- they are hiring, and the contestants are applying for a job.

In the real world, dance auditioners who fail are usually dismissed without a word of explanation. Often the losing applicants say, "I wish they'd tell me what I'm doing wrong."

But when somebody does tell them, there are always a few can't bear to listen.

When the disciples tried and failed to cast out a devil, and asked Jesus why, his answer might have felt harsh to them: "Because of your unbelief" (Matt. 17:21).

Likewise when he called them "ye of little faith" because they feared a storm might sink their ship (Matt. 8:26), or said the same again to Peter when he became fearful and ceased to be able to walk upon the water (Matt. 14:31).

In all three cases, they might have retorted, "I have faith! I called upon you, didn't I?"

They might have tried to defend themselves: "How was I supposed to know that this kind of devil can only be cast out by fasting and prayer?" Or, "Hey, I walked three steps on the water before I started to slip, give me some credit here!"

Maybe some of them did say such things -- but by refusing to hear criticism, they made it all the more unlikely that they would learn and grow.

Criticism can make us feel that we're being attacked, and we respond with fear. Some collapse into tears, some run away, and some become angry and lash back in self-defense. None of these responses is helpful.

If you're humble, you'll have the self-knowledge and self-control to master your fear and hear criticism. That doesn't mean you'll agree with the criticism; it just means that you will bear it without reply, except for a courteous, "Thank you" or even "I'll try to learn from what you've told me."

Later, when you're calm, you can think back over the criticism and see if you understand it and agree with it.

Often, as a writer, I've heard criticism of my work from editors or reviewers or readers. I'm human -- I certainly have all those defensive thoughts, which usually begin with the phrase, "What an idiot!"

But I schooled myself not to reply to criticism of my work, because I almost always found that there was some kind of weakness in my work that made critics and editors respond negatively, even if they were completely wrong in their diagnosis of the problem.

The result was that I got better, and still get better, from hearing criticism. (But not from ad hominem attacks and accusations, or from deliberate distortions and misrepresentations of my work -- humility does not require me to listen respectfully to hatred.)

Humility does not require us to deny it when we have done good work. When I have written a book that accomplishes what I meant it to do, there is nothing in the gospel that requires me to lie and say that I think it's really terrible and nobody should read it.

On the contrary -- I expect to be rather highly paid for my best work. Don't you? When you do good work, isn't it right to "take pride" in it?

Pride isn't always bad; making a show of humility isn't always appropriate.

It's when pride leads you to mistreat or scorn others that it is destructive. And if you are so "humble" that you never think anything you do is good enough, how will you ever complete a single task in your life?

You go up to compliment them and they say, "Oh, I know that other people do it so much better than me."

These aggressively humble people seem to demand that you praise them even more extravagantly than you meant to. Don't you want to give them a shake and say, "The correct answer to 'you did a great job' is 'thank you very much,' not 'how could you be so stupid as to think I did well?'"

Humility does not come from shame -- it comes from confidence. You know what your abilities are and what level you are at; you wish to improve, and are willing to hear suggestions for improvement from anyone who seriously offers them. Neither praise nor criticism bothers you.

Perhaps the key is to separate your work from yourself. Criticism of your work is not an attack on you; praise for your work is not praise for you either. It is about the job you did. Because of your willingness to hear, next time you'll know what parts you do well, and what parts need improvement.

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About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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