Humility and Excellence

February 17, 2004 | 8 comments
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*Warning: Lengthy and self-indulgent blathering!*

On Sunday, I had what might have been, for a better person, a humbling experience. For me, it was merely humiliating.

I was playing a violin solo for the special musical number during Sacrament Meeting. This in itself is a little embarrassing for me–I was a decent violinist a long time ago, but haven’t taken lessons or practiced seriously in many years, so I’m really not very good anymore, but there’s nobody better in my ward, and I’ve thought it important to offer my talents, such as they are, even though a bushel feels to me like a better place for them–ad Dei majorem gloriam and all that.

So, anyway, about 4 notes into “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” the wooden peg holding my d-string, shrunk by cold dry weather, came unstuck from its hole and spun around 3 or 4 times, so that the D-string wouldn’t sound at all (well, it might have sounded a little, but mostly like an ailing cow about an octave and a half below it’s proper place.) Rather than stop and fix it, I had the idiotic hubris to just transpose the rest of the verse up an octave and play it on the two upper strings, which were working fine. This worked well for the first verse, but then for the second verse, I was to play harmony, based on the tenor and bass parts, while the piano took the melody. I hadn’t bothered to write out this part, because under normal circumstances, I can transpose from bass clef to treble while I play. Without the d-string, though, I needed to more significantly re-write as I played, and I just couldn’t do it. The result was a total meltdown–I was just floundering all over the place, trying to play in 7th position on the G-string, hideously out of tune, doing nothing related either to melody or harmony with the piano. I recovered (sort of), finished the rest of the piece up an octave again and managed to put my violin away and make it to the ladies room before I started to cry. It might not have been so bad if I could have just slunk off to lick my wounds during Primary time and then come back to face people next week when everyone would have forgotten about it, but instead, I had to get back up on the stand and lead the (lengthy, perky, requiring much smiling) closing hymn 10 minutes later. Ugh.

This experience and, especially, my disappointingly self-involved response leaves me wondering about the nature of humility. For many years, my working definition has been from C.S. Lewis’ _Screwtape Letters_: “[God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. …He wants each man to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.”

While I still think this passage is lovely rhetorically, I’m not at all sure anymore that it works. Aside from the impossibility of knowing which cathedral is “the best,” I’m not sure that a designer as disinterested in his own excellence as the one Lewis describes would be capable of excellence in some objective sense. That is, our ambition to create things that are “virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy” seems inextricably linked with something like pride. I had thought I had gotten over this with my violin playing, that I wasn’t worried anymore about how good I was, and that I was able to just concentrate on giving a little gift of music to other people. As I learned on Sunday, I’m not even close to that point. So maybe I’m just not progressing as fast as I’d hoped, or maybe I’m bumping into a conceptual problem. (Obviously I’d prefer the latter explanation–please keep that in mind as you comment :))

So, is it possible to be properly ambitious, striving (“anxiously engaged”) and humble? What is the proper relation between excellence and humility?

8 Responses to Humility and Excellence

  1. Scott on February 18, 2004 at 11:52 am

    Kristine,

    In my experience, pride is as much stumbling block as motivator. Whether it’s singing, playing an instrument, writing a book, starting a company, speaking a foreign language, or whatever, there will always be those who (a) proceed timidly, cautiously, overrehearsed, always afraid to make a mistake or (b) proceed boldly, even recklessly, making many mistakes without much concern about how that might make others think of them. From what I’ve seen, the latter usually end up achieving much more. They also seem to enjoy themselves more.

    Scott

  2. cooper on February 18, 2004 at 11:59 am

    Difficult question Kristine. We have one perfect example in Christ. The rest of us just flubb it up miserably. Even the most humble occasionally look up with pride in their offering and then are lost.

    I guess the real question is can we find joy without pride?

    take long walks in stormy weather
    or through deep snow in the fields and woods,
    if you would keep your spirits up.
    deal with brute nature.
    be cold and hungry and weary. ~ h.d. thoreau

  3. Jim F. on February 18, 2004 at 12:03 pm

    Kristine, the warning is unnecessary. What else do we bloggers do?

    If you figure out the answer to your question, I hope it appears here. This issue is a major one for me: how do I try to do something excellent and do it without comparing myself to others? That is difficult enough, but then it also becomes, how do I do something excellent and not seek the praise of others? That one is very hard, a constant battle.

  4. Grasshopper on February 18, 2004 at 1:39 pm

    I don’t think being stripped of pride requires that we not compare ourselves to others. I think it is possible to compare ourselves to others, recognize our comparative strengths for what they are, and not be prideful.

    I think Jim’s second question is much more difficult, particularly if the “others” whose praise we seek includes God. Is it wrong to seek to be praised by God: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant”?

    It seems to me that seeking praise may not, in itself, be prideful, either. I think pridefulness may have more to do with what we do with the praise or the comparison — how we allow these to affect us.

  5. lyle on February 19, 2004 at 1:17 am

    Kristine:

    I’m with Scott, and as those that know me can attest…I’m def. the (B) type. However…

    I’m not going to try and do what you did. I’ve been considering taking violin back up again (after 12 year absence)…but don’t have the courage to offer up whatever meager talent remains as you did. if you have any tips for getting over pride in this sense; i.e. re-learning what I once knew…please share. :)

  6. lyle on February 19, 2004 at 1:22 am

    p.s. meager talent referred to my languished skill. the capacity to play in 7th position and transpose musik is FAR from meager. :)

  7. greenfrog on February 19, 2004 at 2:33 am

    *Aside from the impossibility of knowing which cathedral is “the best,” I’m not sure that a designer as disinterested in his own excellence as the one Lewis describes would be capable of excellence in some objective sense.*

    I’m not sure how excellence can be perceived “objectively.” It seems to me that perception itself depends on “subjectivity,” i.e., a perceiver who can engage in the moral agency inherent in making qualitative evaluations.

    *That is, our ambition to create things that are “virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy” seems inextricably linked with something like pride.*

    Or maybe with something like self?

    *I had thought I had gotten over this with my violin playing, that I wasn’t worried anymore about how good I was, and that I was able to just concentrate on giving a little gift of music to other people. As I learned on Sunday, I’m not even close to that point.*

    Perhaps you were closer than you now think? Or perhaps you are closer now than you were on Sunday? While we teach of eternal progression as though it were a conveyor belt or a path, I think those metaphors can only carry us so far. Is it meaningful to weigh the certainty of testimony in the middle of a revelation? I like the metaphor of quantum states. Sometimes I’m at one level, sometimes at a higher one. The feeling is more of a binary choice than an analog scale.

    *So, is it possible to be properly ambitious, striving (“anxiously engaged”) and humble?*

    It seems to me that striving is a characteristic of desire, and desire a characteristic of self. Is the humility you seek self-negation? Is it meaningful to speak of desireless desire? Or of striving at peace? That sounds, perhaps with reason, more Zen than is usually acknowledged in Christianity.

    *What is the proper relation between excellence and humility?*

    I am not sure, but I suspect that seeing past the self (is that humility) might cause one to see excellence everywhere.

  8. Melissa on February 19, 2004 at 10:51 am

    First, what do we mean by humility? I haven’t really seen anyone define it here and I think that that is an important place to begin.

    Second, Is humility an eternal virtue? I assume that the answers to this question will vary depending on your definition.

    Of course, the scriptures admonish us to be humble, but I’ve wondered if humility isn’t an instrumental virtue to get us from one place to another or a defining virtue inasmuch as it identifies the vice of pride.

    Eternal virtues—love, patience, generosity, etc are attributes of God and so we assume that they are to be sought after and developed as parts of our eternal identity. But, is God humble? We know that Christ was humble both in the pre-mortal realm and in the earthly realm. But, is he humble now?

    What think ye?