Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Some thoughts about Amalickiah’s flattery and the dangers of “awesome”

4 And Amalickiah was desirous to be a king; and those people who were wroth were also desirous that he should be their king; and they were the greater part of them the lower judges of the land, and they were seeking for power.
5 And they had been led by the flatteries of Amalickiah, that if they would support him and establish him to be their king that he would make them rulers over the people. (Alma 46:4-5)

This bit about Amalickiah flattering the lower judges struck me recently after I had gone in for jury duty and seen some of the court proceedings involved.  The point that suddenly stuck out to me in the above verses was that these lower judges were there to settle petty disputes in particular regions. Cases they could not settle would have to be sent to higher judges.

So here we essentially have a group of judges who were aspiring for position beyond their expertise, hoping to acquire it by appointment rather than by gradual accumulation of experience and skill.  By promising them future ruling positions, Amalickiah implicitly flattered them into thinking they were ready for the big time, ready to deal with the hard cases when they most likely weren’t.  But in their unprepared state, they would have made a mess of the Nephite justice system.

I think this tells us something about flattery. It is the voice that suggests we possess skills we don’t really have and are ready for greater responsibility when we really aren’t.  Those who follow the flattery and pursue where the rewards aren’t deserved are set up for humiliating, soul-destroying failure.  That’s what Satan wants. He wants to humiliate and crush us by using our ambitions and aspirations against us.  Flattery is how he starts that, so we have to watch out for flattery.

Here’s a question for you to think about—in the context of the above, what do you think is the spiritual difference between humility and humiliation?


Also connected with this, I want to say a word about the dangers of “awesome” as an overused compliment when we want to say we approve in some manner.

The problem is when messaging of “you are awesome” is thrown around, it becomes increasingly easy to internalize it and believe that not only was the performance awesome, but oneself is awesome in every way, and there is no need for repentance or improvement.  In short, it is too easy for it to feed vanity and pride.  

For us to see past this messaging, we need to have a pretty conscious awareness of all the ways we still need to improve, and we have to have a clear-eyed view of what good was actually done that brought out the approval or admiration.  But if we don’t have that in the first place, how are we to get it without more detailed feedback?  When we need real encouragement, detailed proportionate praise is much more useful.

Suppose I do my duty and then someone tells me I am awesome.  How can I take that at face value?  I know I did just my duty.  Am I to understand that doing one’s duty is so rarely seen that it must be commented on and praised?  I sure hope not.  But if doing one’s duty is widespread, then how were my actions extraordinary?  I have no way of knowing unless more detailed feedback is given.  It would be much more in proportion and helpful to say, “It makes me happy to see you do your duty” or “You’re doing a good job” or even “You’ve been diligent.”

“You are awesome” may seem like a harmless verbal tic of a compliment, but when we remember Nephite history and the trouble that flattering words caused by leading people astray, we see the long-term effects. Consider that pride ultimately was what led to the Nephites’ final destruction, and then these overstated compliments and affirmations can be seen for what they are—a gateway drug.

Since it is likely that this trend of overstating the awesome will not end soon, we need to be aware of it and put in place mental safeguards to keep perspective. We can remind ourselves we are doing our duty. We can remember that we or others may not be in the best position to judge our performance; if it were looked at more closely it might be barely adequate instead of “awesome.”  We can remind ourselves that others may be gushing or flattering us.

So don’t reflexively call people awesome. Use your creativity and fashion more precise ways to express your approval and compliments. Your words will actually mean more to people.


Rozy Lass said...

Oh my! You address a subject near and dear to me. Our Branch President is constantly telling everyone how awesome they are, or how our branch is just awesome. It makes me gag!!! Once I actually had the guts to say to him, "God is awesome, but nobody else."

Here's what I wrote to get it off my chest --

The adjective awesome is thrown around a lot. It’s probably among the most overused adjectives right now. Awesome means “inspiring with an overwhelming sense of reverence or fear.” With that definition in mind I’d like to explore the question “What would an awesome unit (be it ward or branch) be like?”
A unit could be called awesome if it had 75% Sacrament meeting attendance (there’s always someone out sick, on vacation or at work), and 90% Home and Visiting Teaching; and if the unit had more individuals and families to teach than one set of missionaries could handle, and convert baptisms every month, with those converts staying active because of the love and nurturing they receive. That would be truly awesome. A unit could be called awesome if it also had ongoing temple preparation classes; and if all the adults who had been members longer than one year had full temple recommends and were endowed and sealed. A unit could be called awesome if there was an ongoing teacher improvement class and graduated members could teach any of the classes on the spur of the moment, and could give inspiring Sacrament meeting talks without wasting time on how they were asked to speak and how nervous they are and how they decided what to talk about, ad infinitum. A unit could be called awesome if the majority of the members went the extra mile without having to be asked; as it is many of us have to be begged and cajoled to go even the first mile. A unit could be called awesome if it were attracting and retaining people to the unit instead of losing them to inactivity. A unit could be called awesome if there was more than one person who played the piano and organ and more than one who could lead music and if it had a choir that practiced and performed regularly and actually sounded great. A unit could be called awesome if the members didn’t get offended at every little thing and were humble and forgiving. A unit could be called awesome if the members acted upon their testimonies and exercised faith instead of just saying the words. If it is true that “by their fruits, ye shall know them” then an awesome unit would include a culture of excellence in all they did from the bulletins to the music and speakers, to the home and visiting teaching, to the classroom lessons inspiring each other to reach higher, work harder and love more deeply.
At the other end of the scale would probably be pathetic, which is defined as “evoking pity, sorrow, or compassion; miserably inadequate”. How does a unit move up the scale? Just calling something awesome doesn’t make it so. In addition to loving their members, leaders teaching correct principles and practices, sort of like a coach of five year old soccer players would through demonstration and repetition, could move a unit to actions that would bear fruit worthy to be called awesome. It’s what I’m attempting to accomplish in our Relief Society. I get discouraged because it seems to be such a slow process. But when I stand before the Lord on judgment day to give an accounting I want to be able to say I did my best to both love and teach.

Michaela Stephens said...

I like your definition of what an awesome ward would be like. It's a lot to try to live up to. I imagine that if people tried to do it, they would pretty soon find out they weren't awesome, and they'd have to choose whether to depend on Christ or to get discouraged.

Rozy Lass said...

I hope saints wouldn't get discouraged; rather listen to the encouragement from Elder Holland in the last conference, "If you stumble in that pursuit, so does everyone; the Savior is there to help you keep going. If you fall, summon His strength, . . . Get back up. Then repent and repair and fix whatever you have to fix, and keep going. Soon enough you will have the success you seek."

I think your statement, choosing whether to depend on Christ or get discouraged is indicative of some of the problem. I frequently see memes on Facebook that say something like "My family is the greatest gift I have." To which I say, "Not me; the greatest gift I have is the gift of the Atonement through Jesus Christ. My family can never give me salvation or exaltation; whereas Jesus Christ can give me both and an eternal family too!"

We who know must help others come to know that Christ truly is the way, the whole way and the only way! And that dependence on Him and His Atoning Sacrifice, miracle that it is, is what will get us through this life successfully.

Thanks again for the conversation. I hope someday we can meet in person.

Michaela Stephens said...

Good thoughts. I hope we can meet too someday, Rozy Lass.