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The Perils of Excellence


If we were to create a caricature of the typical American commencement address, it would entail Famous Person X coming to say to a group of distracted students: “Take this one virtue (for which I am duly famous) and make it the theme of your life.” Many in the audience would immediately sense that we will never be as good as Dr. X at that great quality and feel mildly (but permanently) disheartened. Still, the press grabs snippets of the great counsel and splashes it on page A-1. Many are in awe of the insight. Few are changed by it.

My purpose is not to mock those accomplished souls who counsel our graduates. It is to argue for companionship, balance, and mutual respect among the virtues. No virtue by itself is sufficient.

For a contemporary example, William Bennett has lectured Americans about values for many of years. Lately he has gained additional renown for losing millions of dollars on gambling. He protests that nothing he did was illegal. Perhaps his millions lost in gambling would be considered only expensive recreation if each of those dollars were matched with a dollar given to charity. In the absence of a higher cause, his gambling losses appear to be a selfish addiction.

Honesty is often touted as if it were the ruling virtue and all others were only peasants. “I must be completely honest” is a common introduction to an unwelcome lecture or the prelude to a withering assault on another human. Honesty without respect is just self-righteousness.

I have learned many lessons about balance from my own mistakes. I left for a mission while still startlingly naïve. I had grown up among honest, sincere, considerate relatives in a family enclave in Emigration Canyon. Having grown up among such good people can be a major disadvantage when required to navigate among people who may be relatively opaque, even deceptive. As I became aware of my great lack of discernment, I began to pray for heaven’s help. I even went on preparation day to the community library to consult psychology texts (which is a sure evidence of my naiveté—thinking that psychology texts would help me understand normal human behavior). Unexpectedly, I found my mind filled with greater understanding of motives as I sought that information in support of my mission duties.

But there were thorns in the rosebush of my newfound insight: creeping cynicism. As I began to detect people’s hidden motives, I began to see the worst in human nature. Yet I knew that new insight should serve a higher cause than undermining human sympathy. So I began to pray for charity, that divine ability to see people sympathetically even redemptively. Discernment without charity is mere disparaging. As I have sought insight in balance with charity, I have been granted the gift of discernment promised in my patriarchal blessing.

Ponder on the sea

Another example: the desire to help must be matched by wisdom and good sense. I have sometimes excused my faulty methods of helping with my good intentions. God asks us to be wise as serpents while being as harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16).

Balance is also necessary in learning. When asked by a student why some very bright people leave the Church, a respected teacher suggested that maybe it is possible to be too smart. While I love and admire that teacher, I recommend a different answer. When our smartness and knowledge is not matched with faith and humility, we are vulnerable to apostasy. “But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29). Knowledge needs faith as a companion.

When our scrupulousness in keeping the commandments is not matched with charity for those who may be less able or less spiritually mature, we become pharisaic. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Matthew 23:23).

The importance of balance is clearly evident in family life. When our skills at communication are not fully matched with a desire to bless, we become tyrants. When our desire to teach our children is not yoked and harmonized with a commitment to nurture them, we are only despots (D&C 121). When we nurture children without teaching true principles, we are not pleasing to the Lord (D&C 68:25).

Sometimes excellence has come to mean a narrow focus on a single quality. A solitary virtue is a very lonely, austere fact. Godly virtues travel with companions.

Add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity (2 Peter 1:5–7).

The focus on a single virtue to the exclusion of others can be very dangerous. Yet none of us is perfect. Our mortal qualities define our mortal limitations. We simply are not able to be everything we should be while still mortals. How can we reconcile the reality of our limitations with the need for balance?

Probably there is a place in each of our lives for three courses:

1. We can call on God for those essential qualities to do what we are called to do. He can enable us to do what is beyond our ability. Elder George Q. Cannon counseled the saints

If any of us are imperfect, it is our duty to pray for the gift that will make us perfect. Have I imperfections? I am full of them. What is my duty? To pray to God to give me the gifts that will correct these imperfections…. No man ought to say, “Oh, I cannot help this; it is my nature.” He is not justified in it, for the reason that God has promised to give strength to correct these things and to give gifts that will eradicate them…. That is the design of God concerning his children.” (Gospel Truth, vol. 1, p. 196)

The enthusiastic pray for temperance. The anxiously engaged seek humble submission. The creative beseech heaven for integrity and obedience.

2. We can draw on the strengths of those who are different from us. This is especially important in a marriage. While Nancy’s reflectiveness and sensitivity may be annoying when I am in a hurry, she regularly rescues me from self-serving rush. My mother’s exuberance radiated from my father’s tapestry of faith and peace. Our differences will bless us or afflict us depending upon our charity.

3. We wait patiently for that perfect day. Our work of growth simply will not be finished when we leave this world for the next. Yet we actively seek his refining influence.

That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day (D&C 50:24).

Life is intended to teach us that we simply cannot do what must be done without divine help. God can provide patience for the enthusiastic, a partner for the flawed, greater maturity for those who are earnest. We can look forward to that day in eternity when we will enjoy a fullness, when we reach the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). Until that welcome day, we are wise to seek balance and call upon divine grace.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Sandee Spencer March 2, 2008 at 6:11 am

    Great insight as always! Is that a picture of you serving your mission?

    I especially loved this insight
    When our skills at communication are not fully matched with a desire to bless, we become tyrants. When our desire to teach our children is not yoked and harmonized with a commitment to nurture them, we are only despots (D&C 121).

    Sandee

  • Reply admin March 3, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    Thank you for the comment! The picture is stock photography–but I like your idea to make the blog more personal by adding real photos.

    -Wally

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