Enslaved to Status No More

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Saturday morning session of the April 1989 General Conference

President Benson’s talk on pride is one that I’m sure I’ve heard referenced before, and that makes me think it’s got to be one of the most famous General Conference talks of my lifetime. But I don’t think I’d ever read it all the way through before today. I’m glad that I did. There’s an awful lot in it that seems directly relevant to our tumultuous times, and I wish I could hear President Benson’s views of the last couple of years. I don’t think he’d be surprised at all.

“In the scriptures, there is no such thing as righteous pride,” he taught. “It is always considered a sin.” He went on to describe pride as fundamentally competitive in nature, literally saying “pride is essentially competitive in nature” and then adding that “The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others.”

This leads to enmity, and also to fear, a “fear of men’s judgment” that, in turns, leads to yet more “competition for men’s approval.” Ironically, this means that pride leads directly to subservience: “When pride has a hold on our hearts, we lose our independence of the world and deliver our freedoms to the bondage of men’s judgment.”

There’s much, much more in the talk worth reading, but I want to stop here for a moment and focus on this concept. I’ve been making my way through N. T. Wright’s, “The Day the Revolution Began,” in which he argues that the fundamental sin is idolatry. I don’t think that Wright’s view of idolatry and Benson’s statement that it’s pride are actually that different, if they’re different at all, because idolatry is really about putting something else ahead of God. We always think it’s ourselves, which is why it’s really the same as pride, but it always ends up being something else–some desire or fear or addiction–that becomes a cruel god over us in the end. 

It also reminds me of the concept of a “zero sum game”. The concept of a zero sum game comes from game theory, which means it’s not really about games that people play for fun or sport. In game theory, a “game” is more like a competition. There are one or more “players”, and each one of them has a variety of actions they can take. Depending on the actions they take, the players get “payoffs” at the end of the game, which can be positive or negative. The most famous game from game theory is the prisoner’s dilemma, where two players each have an option of cooperating with the other player or betraying the other player. If they both cooperate, they both win. But if one of them betrays the other (and that other one tries to cooperate) than the betrayer wins even more

The point of the prisoner’s dilemma is that it’s always rational to betray the other player, but–as games go–it’s a relatively nice one because at least cooperation is possible. In fact, a lot of basic game theory studies what you need to add to make it rational for players in the prisoner’s dilemma to cooperate.

Because players can cooperate and both win, the prisoner’s dilemma is a positive sum game. This separates it from zero sum games. In a zero sum game, the only way for one player to get a positive payoff is by hurting some other player. That’s what makes it a “zero sum” game, any benefit from one player is canceled by a cost to another player, meaning that the total benefit for all players is always zero. 

All human beings are trapped in a life-long zero sum game whether we realize it or not. The payoff of the game is status. It’s a zero sum game because there’s no way for everyone to have more status at the same time. Status is relative. There’s no absolute amount of status you can have. A person only has either more or less than other people. Even if you don’t hurt someone else to get your own status, the fact that you move up in the hierarchy means they have to move down.

This zero sum status game is what President Benson is talking about when he says that we “we lose our independence of the world and deliver our freedoms to the bondage of men’s judgment.” If you are prideful, you’re giving in to the status game. You’re handing over your independence and allowing the world to tell you how much you are worth. It’s a vicious, zero-sum game that is never over. And that means no one ever wins. And as long as you’re playing it, then everyone else is your enemy.

As Jordan Peterson famously described in his book Twelve Simple Rules, the status game is almost as old as life itself. Ancient animals–he used the example of lobsters–play basically the same status game that humans are tempted to play. The idea of a social hierarchy with winners and losers is part of our DNA. 

If you think you don’t care about status, you’re kidding yourself. I’m not a very competitive person by nature and for a long time I thought I was pretty independent of these kinds of games, but I realized recently that I was fooling myself. Which means I was hiding my pride.

The reality is that I crave recognition. I’m a little picky about who I get it from and what I’m recognized for, but the thought that I could spend my whole life striving to be a writer and fail was terrifying to me. Because–even though I have a testimony and believe in God and try to follow the commandments–I was still prideful. I wanted to win my way. And I wanted other people to notice and reward me. And that made me idolatrous and afraid and ashamed. 

I’ve been trying to repent. It’s not easy. These habits are deep, deep down inside of us. They’re part of the natural man that is an enemy to God. And they can hide inside of us in ways that are hard for us to see. As President Benson said, “Pride is a sin that can readily be seen in others but is rarely admitted in ourselves.” This is especially true if we don’t feel we have much to be proud of. I want to write books that everyone reads and agrees are really wonderful and then they give me lots of awards and make TV shows and movies out of my books. I want people to ask me for my opinion about storytelling and art and then all listen attentively because I’m important

But how can I see myself as prideful if those dreams are totally unrealized? I’m not famous. I’ve never written a whole book, fiction or non-fiction. I’ve written dozens of short stories, but only one has ever been published so far. I have nothing to be proud of, so I can’t be guilty of pride, can I?

Yes, I can. And I was. I am, although I’m also repenting. It’s just the desire for that recognition that’s the sin, whether or not you have it  yet. It’s the twisted desire to be seen as better than that causes the problems, regardless of you’re actually accomplishing it or not.

When God finally showed me–a few weeks before I read this talk–how much pride I had inside I was shocked. But I also realized there’s a way out. 

My prideful plan had basically two parts. First, I wanted to be admitted by the cool kids as one of their own. I wanted authors I respect and admire to see me as one of their own. I wanted to sit with the cool kids at lunch. That’s literally how I described it to myself.

Second, I wanted to create a body of work that would prove I was a valuable person. I wanted to be able to point to a stack of books and say, “See, I’m not worthless. I wrote those, and they matter.” 

And of the two, the second mattered more. I wanted a legacy that would serve as the sign of my value and worth. That would prove I wasn’t like other people. I was special. I was different. I was better.

These hypothetical books: they were my treasure. And my heart was set upon it. And as long as my heart was set upon it, I was violating the basic commandment Jesus taught in Matthew 6:

19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

My heart was here. On Earth. It wasn’t physical. Moth and rust couldn’t literally corrupt it. But it was still earthly. It was subject to popularity and luck and whim. And so my heart was trapped and I was handing myself over to the infinite, zero-sum status game. I was letting myself be captured by the world.

I don’t want to do that any more. I revoke my citizenship and withdraw my heart from the world. I don’t entrust my legacy to anything on earth. I give my legacy to God. 

Making this decision felt like lifting a physical weight off my shoulders that I never even knew I was carrying around. I realized that, as far as the world was concerned, this decision made me untouchable. So much fear and anxiety and shame–shame that I haven’t accomplished more already–evaporated. I am putting all my chips on God. 

This is easier said than done. A lifetime of habit on top of millions of years of evolution don’t just disappear overnight. Repentance is a process, not an event. 

But I know at a deep, visceral level that President Benson’s teachings on pride are true. I know that more of us are guilty of it than realize it. Because pride is not a sin of the elite. It’s a sin of everyone. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that once you see it, you can start to recover. And recovery tastes sweet. You won’t even realize how much you’ve been living in fear and shame until you realize there’s another way to live.

And once you do, you’ll never want to go back.

Read more posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:

One thought on “Enslaved to Status No More”

  1. That personal example is a great illustration why letting go of pride can be so freeing and joyful. Submission to God sounds hard, and IS hard, but in some ways it’s so much easier than the endless work of vying for worldly position—even, as you said, when we THINK we aren’t doing so. I’ve come to several similar realizations of my own in the past several years. I think motherhood is gradually crushing them all out of me—in a good way. 🙂 I’m learning how much happier I am when I let go of what seems impressive or important to ANYONE except God.

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