Elder Snow’s Talk on Humility and Reflections on Certainty #ldsconf

Nearly every day I have occasion to cross the busiest street in the city. Given its eight lanes, I usually chose to do so at a convenient crosswalk that is regulated by a traffic light. As is the case with most of Vienna’s 1,286 traffic lights, this one is controlled by a timer. It also features an audio and tactile system for guiding visually impaired persons over the street. Basically this system consists of raised lines on the sidewalk and across the street for guiding the tip of a cane  and a box about a meter off the ground that has a raised pictogram of the number of lanes to be crossed and, hidden from plain view, a button that can be depressed to activate an audio signal that sounds while the light is green.This is important–the box pictured below does not turn the light green or in any other way influence the timer; it simply activates an audio signal whenever pedestrians are given the right of way according to preprogrammed intervals.

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Part of a traffic light guidance system for the visually impaired, here showing four lanes of traffic coming from the left. The button to activate the audio signal is out of sight on the bottom of the device.

Since the light is controlled by a timer, there is no need for other devices or interfaces for either vehicles or pedestrians to signal their presence and, more importantly, readiness for the light to turn green. The powers that be have decided in advance when the light will turn and that’s that. But though the gods have cast the die, it is not mankind’s wont to accept its fate passively. And so, as crowds grow impatiently on either side of the street, someone who’s been around the block a few times and knows there’s a button under there–though not long enough to know the limits of its power–will inevitably reach over and vigorously press the hidden button, expecting it to turn the light. Sometimes they are lucky and the button pushing coincides with the end of a red phase, reinforcing cognitive errors about cause and effect. Other times the button pusher is not so rapidly rewarded, but established beliefs die hard.

In fact, the belief that pushing the button does something beyond its designed function is so widespread that newer devices explicitly inform seeing pedestrians that this is not the case.

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“Only for the visually impaired”

I don’t know if it makes a difference; I still routinely see people pushing buttons at timed intersections across the city, expecting the light to turn faster in their favor. I find myself secretly hoping that the wait will be long and wincing when it’s not. “There’s no meaningful relationship here, people!” I mutter to myself.

As a practicing Mormon, however, I no doubt find myself in a glass house where, say, invoking a blessing of nourishment over an artery-clogging, diabetes-onsetting dish at the ward potluck is a long-standing tradition.  But this won’t be the post to sort out magical thinking from the truly efficacious in a religious context; rather, I would like to consider misplaced confidence in causal relationships in the context of Elder Steven E. Snow’s talk “Be Thou Humble” at the Saturday morning session.

Elder Snow describes how his athletic, intelligent and popular teenaged son suffered a serious head injury, lapsed into a coma, lost his short-term memory and struggled to relearn very basic skills. Elder Snow recounts that this cruel blow of fate “was a very humbling time for him. It was also a very humbling time for his parents”:

Honestly, we wondered how such a thing could happen. We had always strived to do the right things. Living the gospel had been a high priority for our family. We couldn’t understand how something so painful could happen to us.

I share his pain and dismay at the sense that somehow righteous living ought to prevent such tragedies. I too have pressed buttons fully expecting a particular outcome, imbuing my religious observance with unwarranted protections against the buffetings of a mortal existence in which the problem of evil was someone else’s. Impressed as a youth by teachings such as tithing as fire insurance and the Word of Wisdom as an alternative to anesthesia, I set out to bind the Lord. (See here and here for this principle being taught in the contexts of covenants and commandments; see here and here for discussions at BCC.) But when financial and health-related setbacks afflicted me and those in my immediate circle I know to be faithful and obedient, disappointment was a common refrain. I mean, where’s the Law of the Harvest when you need it?!

If only life were that simple, and the relationship between law, obedience and outcomes so straightforward. As Elder Snow observes:

Simply living life can be and often is a humbling experience. Accident and illness, the death of loved ones, problems in relationships, even financial reversals can bring us to our knees. Whether these difficult experiences come through no fault of our own or through bad decisions and poor judgment, these trials are humbling.

There is no question that our ability to exercise moral agency leaves an imprint on our lives. On the other hand, “your Father which is in heaven […] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). This feature of our mortal existence makes it difficult to attribute reward and merit to individual agency, at least for the time being. We may have pushed a button and the light may have turned green, but how can we be so sure that the one had anything to do with the other?

Well, we can’t. And yet the human mind is hardly wired to

acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in. We are prone to overestimate how much we understand about the world and to underestimate the role of chance in events. Overconfidence is fed by the illusory certainty of hindsight. (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow)

And so we assume in dubio pro homine, at least when it comes to life’s timely green lights; the red lights we’re usually happy to ascribe to others. But in doing so we run the risk of disappointment as the rug of certainty is whisked from underneath budding faith. Unwarranted confidence in the arm of the flesh also fuels pride, discounting the role of others, including God, in our lives.

While we trust in divine promises and seek to qualify for them, we must avoid giving ourselves too much credit if we hope to”become better parents, sons and daughters and followers of the Savior.”  Why? Well, imagine you spent a lifetime confirming the belief that, say, the press of a particular button had a particular effect…and it turned out you were wrong? It turns out that few of us are able to interrogate and correct pre-existing beliefs (though check here to see if you are the exception); we prefer to fit the facts as we see them to rules we’ve already intuited.

This is no big deal when we’re just trying to cross the street; but sometimes the stakes are higher like, say, determining the path that will lead to eternal life. How do we overcome our tendency to be so certain about the wrong answer? Part of the answer is humility. Elder Snow recalls President Kimball’s counsel: “How does one get humble? To me, one must constantly be reminded of his dependence. On whom dependent? On the Lord. How to remind one’s self? By real, constant worshipful, grateful prayer.”

In keeping with other gospel paradoxes–e.g., the first shall be last and the last first, losing your life for the Lord’s sake will  help you find it, etc.–this appreciation for our dependence on the Lord, the realization that we see through a glass darkly and that the control we believe to exercise over our mortal environment may be more tenuous than assumed, is not a capitulation to fate but the key to developing the kind of strength promised in the scriptures and exercising power and influence in a divinely approved manner.

It may seem counterintuitive, but questioning our iron-clad assumptions about the way the traffic lights of the universe work offers a path to greater certainty about the kind of outcomes that really matter, that “we will ultimately return to the presence of our Heavenly Father.” Elder Snow  teaches that “peace of mind” is one of the fruits of humility, certainly a blessing for those of use striving to be faithful in a world where uncertainty is plentiful and easy answers in short supply.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. “Questioning our iron-clad assumptions about the way the traffic lights of the universe work” is very difficult for Mormons and devout members of most other faiths. The notion that random misfortune was intentionally hard wired into the universe we occupy is anathema to those that are convinced that everything happens for a (divine) reason and that all is God’s will.

    And though I greatly enjoyed Elder Snow’s talk, I had to smile when he said: “Honestly, we wondered how such a thing could happen. We had always strived to do the right things. Living the gospel had been a high priority for our family. We couldn’t understand how something so painful could happen to us.”

    Why is it that we experience such feelings when an unexplained tragedy befalls us but when a similar catastrophe becomes the lot of another—an acquaintance who we know to be just as righteous or more so than ourselves—that we almost never ask: “Why, Lord, did you allow that to happen to my friend?” While we may feel sorrow at the pain experienced by others, it almost never causes us to question our faith. It is only when we are the victims, it seems, that we ask: “Why me, Lord?”

  2. I kinda wished he’d talked about the Gospel Topics essays, since he’s in charge of them. Perhaps he was, but if so, only in the most oblique way possible. (Similarly, I wish Ballard had recapped his CES talk, which pushed study, knowledge, etc.

  3. Fine sermon, great commentary. Thanks, PeterLLC.

  4. Just so, FarSide. Ben S: maybe we can get an interview? Thanks, WVS.

  5. True Blue says:

    I have just been in China where beside the traffic light there is a clock counting down to when it will change. Really removes the frustration. Your blind man wouldn’t last 5 minutes though because they do not respect pedestrian crossings.

    I was also struck by the “but we’re righteous reaction”. Does he normally relate tragedy to righteousness. We had a sister relate a bushfire in another state to legislation on gays, but I thought we had moved beyond that sort of thing.

  6. Yeah, there’s a stack of research on how to design public interfaces to remove anxiety; a couple of lights have had the countdown timers installed but they’re not widespread yet.

    As for your other point, well, I suppose if you sow the law of the harvest, you reap the prosperity gospel. Or something.

  7. FarSide says:

    The countdown timers have become quite ubiquitous in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, and they are liked by both motorists and pedestrians.

    And while we are completely off the spiritual subject, I am reminded of a story Johnny Carson told years ago about an experience he had as a passenger in a New York City cab. When the light turned green at the intersection where his taxi had stopped, there was a blind gentleman with a seeing-eye dog still in the crosswalk, which irritated the cab driver, so he honked his horn. Carson was shocked and said: “Can’t you tell that man is blind!” To which the cabbie replied, in a perfect Brooklyn drawl: “The dog should have known better.”

  8. I remember some members in my ward at the time very loudly and certainly declaring that the earthquake in Haiti was God’s punishment to them for Haitians’ evil ways, gay and otherwise. I felt sick. This is a disease of the mind that we absolutely must dispel from among our people.

    This is such a good post, Peter. As someone who experienced a typical Kimball- and Benson-era Mormon upbringing, I too wrestled for years with the thought that I could bind the Lord and basically force him to do my will by being really good and keeping the commandments as I understood them.

    But as I’ve mused more recently, the “law of the harvest” is very appealing to the natural man precisely because of this mechanical quid pro quo aspect to it. But as with all else relating to the natural man, our purpose in our mortal sojourn is to learn to put off the natural man. The way of Grace is counterintuitive to the natural man. The processes of the natural and biological world are detached from our efforts. As you quote, the “Father which is in heaven […] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Plate tectonics, weather patterns, and many other things are long-term natural processes that are in motion completely separately from the moral choices individual humans make (though bad moral choices in the aggregate can directly affect some of those natural processes, as science has irrefutably demonstrated, for example with human influenced global warming).

    We need to learn to walk the way of Grace. On that path, we need to be our best selves out of gratitude for God’s Grace in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, something that has nothing to do with whether you drive a Mercedes or a Pinto. If we are obeying and keeping commandments because we think we can bind God by doing so, we are not on the path of Grace, and we are deceiving ourselves into believing a cause and effect relationship is in place that simply doesn’t exist, much like your frustrated Viennese pedestrians who think pressing that button will cause the light to turn green sooner.

  9. Maybe ironically, “law of the harvest” isn’t a very good description of a mechanical process where the only variable is obedience. There are all kinds of things that can go wrong, all kinds of things that are outside the control of the farmer/gardener, and even the fact that seeds germinate and grow is itself an echo of the miracle of creation. So in the end, the harvest itself (which also cannot happen without the sun and the rain that shine and fall without regard to righteousness), is much, much more a gift of divine grace than it is the inevitable result of the farmer’s efforts.

  10. john f., I agree with your observations, but one of the problems we confront in attempting to dispel this “disease of the mind,” as you describe it, is that most of our scriptures, especially the Bible and Book of Mormon, tend to attribute all good things that happen to God and all bad things that happen to man’s sinfulness. Notwithstanding the Savior’s subtle hints that this really isn’t how the world works, this mindset did not begin to change until the Enlightenment.

    I don’t fault the authors of the Bible and Book of Mormon for reaching the conclusions they did since there was no other plausible explanation for what they witnessed that had occurred to them. And even the Savior was constrained by the knowledge and intelligence of His audience—He couldn’t very well say: “This guy wasn’t really possessed by a devil but rather experienced a seizure that began with an uncontrolled electrical discharge in a small area of his brain, which someday your posterity will call epilepsy.”

    As you point out, even today it is difficult to convince the devout that God is not the proximate cause of every good and bad thing that happens. Getting people to understand that just because God has a “hand in all things,” doesn’t mean that He is the direct catalyst for every biological or physical phenomenon that occurs on the earth is an uphill battle.

  11. Great comment, FarSide.

  12. I really liked that thought, JKC. Grace as an intricate part of the law of the harvest — you are correct that this must be the case because in an actual harvest (and not the tortured application we Mormons give to the “law of the harvest” to mean simply cause and effect), organic life is at issue, and we still do not understand the ultimate spark of life from a scientific perspective. That is Grace and we can understand it through faith only.

  13. “. . . we still do not understand the ultimate spark of life from a scientific perspective. That is Grace and we can understand it through faith only.”

    This is well put, and is especially poignant in light of the passage in John’s gospel where Jesus compares himself to a seed that must die in order to give new life, and the similar passage in Corinthians.

  14. Good stuff, john f. & JKC.

  15. Thank you all for enriching the OP with your comments.

  16. Alpineglow says:

    Loved the comment JKC. There probably won’t be a harvest if we don’t plant. But if we do plant, that doesn’t guarantee that there will be a harvest.