A Shift in My Values

When I was young, I was often asked what I wanted to be when I grow up. The answer to that question shifted and changed over the years. For a while, I wanted to be a detective, like Sherlock Holmes. I wanted to dazzle people with my deductive powers and solve crimes that no one could solve. Then, I wanted to be an astronomer, and spend my nights looking into the sky, learning about the stars, and discovering new celestial objects. Then, I wanted to be a physicist, and I wanted to discover the ever-elusive “Theory of Everything.” There were many other variants, but almost all of them involved me doing something that has never been done before, or going somewhere no one’s been before. Whatever it was that I did, I wanted to be a pioneer in the field, and to be known for it. Like the rest of humankind, I’ve always had the desire to be great.

Eventually, I chose to study psychology, and for the most part, nothing changed. My desire has been to be a pioneer, to make a difference, to change the world in some way. In the past, I’ve envisioned myself writing books that eventually become as influential as Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I’ve envisioned myself publishing papers that change the way people think about human nature. I’ve envisioned myself becoming a catalyst that changes the way people do psychology (at least, within the LDS community). And I don’t think these goals are entirely outside of my grasp. Maybe I have too much self-confidence, but I’ve never really failed at something that I’ve stuck with to the end (at least, anything that really mattered to me). I don’t want to just be good at what I do. I want to be great at it. Mediocrity is failure.

However, I’m coming to wonder if we’ve mis-defined greatness. Our society measures greatness in terms of power. I’m not talking about political power. Great artists can get millions of people to views their works. Great writers can influence the minds of an entire generation. Great scholars are handed the reigns of the university. The measure of power is notability. Neal Armstrong’s name is known by virtually everyone, and his actions will have the power to inspire school children for generations to come. Even Gandhi is known today because he had power. It was his ability to change the political landscape of India that has put his name in the history books. Society has trained me to value being at the top rung of the ladder and etching my name on the world in a way that will be remembered. These people are certainly role models. However, if they are our only role models, then we as a society will inevitably value notability, fame, and power more than I believe we should. I believe that this has filtered into my own life, and in the past, it has defined what it means to be great at what I do.

My perspective and desires have undergone some dramatic revisions over the past 4 months. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to think of how to communicate the thoughts that I’ve had. So far I’ve had a really hard time expressing myself. Let me give it a stab. For some reason, I stopped caring about all the things I used to. If I never publish a single paper for the rest of my life, I honestly wouldn’t shed a tear. If my name gets lost and the world doesn’t remember me, I wouldn’t really care. I don’t value being a great scholar, a great psychologist, or a great writer anymore (at least, measured in terms of notability and power).

I just want to be a great husband and father.

I’m not married. I’m not even necessarily in a hurry to get married. I’m going to let that happen when it is time, and not a moment sooner. However, learning how to be a great husband to my future wife, and a great father to my future kids, has suddenly become the single desire of my heart. When it comes to being a husband and a father, mediocrity is still failure. And being a great husband and father is not measured by notability or power. It is measured in goodness and love. And for that reason, I can say that I don’t want to be great (as defined by the world). I just want to be good (as in, goodness). And if any of my previous dreams of notability come true, it will be incidental to my efforts to provide for my family and be the best man I can be for them.

This doesn’t mean that I think it’s wrong to strive for and eventually reach the top rung of the ladder. If someone chooses business as a career, they should become a master of the trade. If someone chooses singing as a career, they should become a master of the trade. And becoming a master of the trade may often lead to notability and greatness, as defined by society. There is no sin in this whatsoever. I plan to become a master of my trade. If I become a teacher, I will master the art of teaching. If I become a writer, I will master the art of writing. To do anything less would be dishonest. But it suddenly and inexplicably doesn’t matter to me whether I end up at the top rung of the ladder, or become “successful” as defined by society. I won’t master my trade in order to get notability and fame, or define my success in those terms. Rather, my happiness and my success will be in how good of a husband and father I become for my future wife and children.

For some reason, at this stage in my life, my aspirations now lie almost entirely within the walls of my future home. I want to build a home that is a sanctuary from the world, and I want that to be the project of my life. And that will never get me into the history books. But now I don’t value getting into history books as much as I used to.

For some reason, I’m happier now.

4 thoughts on “A Shift in My Values

  1. I, too, have experienced the divine discontent. I wanted to soar. I did to an extent. Jealous people held to my legs, unfortunately. But I finally found my true place when I turned all over to God. Bless you in your journey.

  2. It’s amazing to me how the typical definition of success thrives even in the church. You just don’t see many humble working class Stake Presidents for example. Then again, being Stake President really should not be the way we define success in the church. I have to believe God sees our greatness in how many others we lift up and help thrive, after all he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.

  3. Doc, thanks for your comment. =)

    I hope you’ll forgive me for pointing something out. You said, “I have to believe God sees our greatness in how many others we lift up and help thrive.” Is our greatness measured in how many people we help? This would imply that larger quantity = more greatness, and it is hard to avoid folding this back into the idea that greatness = power. Mother Teresa helped thousands of more people than my next door neighbor, who has simply taught primary all of her life. Mother Teresa’s example has lifted millions of peoples spirits with her example, while my next door neighbor has lifted several dozen spirits. Is Mother Teresa a greater person than my next door neighbor? My neighbor hasn’t helped as many people as Mother Teresa, because Mother Teresa had more power (as measured in notability and quantity of people reached).

    I think, therefore, that greatness is not measure in how many people we help. Rather, it is something a little simpler and more basic than that. My next door neighbor has mastered the art of teaching primary, not because of how many people she would help by doing so, but because she would help little Ben and little Sally by doing so. And if little Ben and little Sally are the only two people ever touched by her efforts to master the art of teaching, that wouldn’t diminish her greatness. In a way, true greatness is the willingness to master a talent for the sake of the few or the one, rather than for the sake of the many. A once-illiterate mother who spends hundreds upon hundreds of hours learning how to read, so that she can then read to her only child. That’s greatness… even if her only child is the only person who is ever uplifted by her new skill.

  4. Doc, “You just don’t see many humble working class Stake Presidents for example.”

    I’ve known some very humble ones. They happened to be decidedly middle class, not “working class”, but still very humble.

    And as for “success” — I think of my good friend (who has since moved from my ward). He was a former bishop and a great friend. I especially appreciated the graceful and faithful way he served in a calling that was far out of the lime light — known perhaps to about ten people in the stake. And yet he served quietly and remarkably. A real lesson to me.

    ldsp: Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

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