"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for January, 2011

Chesterton on self-esteem

THOROUGHLY worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has ‘Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.” And to all this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause I replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” This is the book that I have written in answer to it.

-G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy

Well, that settles that.  The very idea that one can achieve success by thinking highly of oneself is rather absurd.  The idea that we can assist our children by telling them that whatever they’re doing is right is equally absurd.  When you look back on it, you realize how absurd it is.  Obviously a child who thinks that he’s very good at everything is not going to put a great deal of effort into difficult tasks, or think cautiously about how to proceed when starting something, or work well with teammates.  All of those things require a child to being with a certain amount of humility.

I believe that the self-esteem movement is in the process of collapsing.  Studies keep showing that children with high self-esteem get bad grades, bully, and fail at higher rates.  Adults with high self-esteem are more likely to be in jail and less likely to have full-time jobs.  Self-esteem is one of the worst things that can happen to a person.  The real question, though, is why did we let the movement happen at all when Chesterton told us a century ago that it was a bad idea?

Funny Stuff

Having nothing better to do with my life, I’ve decided to mention two things that I found funny in the past 24 hours.

First, there is a corporation called Smurfit.  Actually, not really.  It’s called Smurfit-Stone.  But it does exist.  Here is their website.  Apparently they make cardboard boxes.

Now consider this for a moment.  Suppose you worked for the Smurfit-Stone Corporation.  Would you be able to say with a straight face that you represent the Smurfit-Stone Corporation?  Would you be able to look at your own advertisements or stationary without cracking up?  I doubt that I would.  Even if I were just in a meeting with representatives of the Smurfit-Stone Corporation, I would probably giggle constantly.

Second, I just received a check from the Disney Corporation.  The check was for $3.15, which is the accumulated dividends from the single share of Disney stock that I’ve owned for about twenty years.  My grandfather bought it for me at age nine or thereabouts because I’d expressed interest in the stock market during a trip to New York.  I collected dividents through high school, but Disney lost track of me when I went to college.  My dividends kept piling up, but apparently there were sending checks to addresses that I left many years ago.  Now they’ve finally found me and payed me $3.15.  Don’t I feel special!

What’s really funny about this is that it emphasizes how the corporate world is so totally divorced from human concerns.  Ultimately they probably spent more than $3.15 to track me down and give me the check.  However, it was all automatic, all computerized.  Nowhere was any human being involved who could say: “Wait!  Stop!  We’re spending a ridiculous amount of money to deliver a check for $3.15!”  Instead, the process simple grinds on, oblivious to reason, logic, or common sense.

How to fish for men.

Yesterday’s gospel lesson was Matthew 4:18-22:

18 And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 19 Then He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 They immediately left their nets and followed Him.
21 Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.

Hearing it threw me back in time about four years to when I was reading the Gospels for the first time in Nashville.  I was taking part in a Bible study, and it was also a time of emotional turmoil.  I had just gotten to know Jesus for the first time, while at the same time I was coming to realize that most of my formal education had been a waste of time and my research would be useless.

Two things stick out about this passage; stick out so much that it feels somewhat silly to point them out.  First is the urgency with which the disciples act.  Jesus asks them to follow and they literally drop everything and follow.  No hesitation, no looking back, no second thoughts.  Second is the fact that this was the start of something huge.  We have here a bunch of humble fishermen, uneducated, poor, and with little worldly experience.  Out of this ragtag group, Jesus fashioned the beginnings of the Church, which has now covered the world and brought in billions of souls and is still growing.  This will always be among my favorite passages because the message is so simple, elegant, and true.

It will also be among my favorite passages because of the way it spoke to back then in Nashville.  I had just been introduced to Jesus, and yet a few weeks later I really did drop everything and leave my life behind as I went to follow Jesus.  And it was the best decision of my life.

What should I write here?

I started by blog on Friday and made one post.  Today is Sunday and I’m writing my second post.  I can’t really think of anything worth writing about.  I’m already out of ideas and running short of inspiration.  Perhaps this blogging project wasn’t such a good idea after all.

The thing is that I don’t want to fill up my blog with mediocrity.  I feel that an excessive amount of mindless nonsense spilling out onto blogs is one of the plagues of modern times.  Back in ancient times, people were well aware of the dangers of too much writing.  Seneca once said: “The world suffers from an excess of literature as much as from an excess of anything.”  Cicero: “Times are bad.  Children disobey their parents and everyone is writing a book.”  Even Plato worried that there was too much writing going on.

Of course this attitude didn’t last forever.  During the Middle Ages the Scholastics believed that books were generally good.  They wanted as many people as possible to be literate and they wanted literate people to read as many books as possible.  By and large, the modern world still accepts those notions.  People in the Middle Ages were generally quite sensible and we could benefit quite a bit from studying them and their ideas.

Nevertheless, I’m not quite willing to blow off Seneca and his ilk just yet.  Even if they fretted a bit too much about the plague of books, there’s still a certain amount of wisdom is judiciously curtailing one’s own writing.  So I’ll end this post right here.

So, I Now Have a Blog.

Blogging started sometime in the 90’s and hit the big time around 2003 or so.  I’m starting my blog in 2011.  That seems about right for a guy who got his first laptop computer in 2005 and his first cell phone in 2006, and who still uses the phrase “laptop computer”.  If there’s any new technology that’s just becoming popular right now, expect me to start participating around 2020.

So, what can I say about my blog?  Well, first of all, I don’t like blogs.  I’m not talking about the concept–I’ll get to that in a minute–but rather the word “blog”.  The phrase “web log” perfectly communicates the idea of a log that’s on the internet.  The word “blog”, on the other hand, is a vulgar condensation of “web log” that communicates nothing.  Why are we so obsessed with minimizing the number of letters used these days?  Lord knows, shortening “omnibus” to “bus” was bad enough.

Now on the the idea of a blog.  I don’t like the concept very much either.  Bloggers have been pretentious from the start.  Andrew Sullivan’s slogan sums up the problem perfectly: “The revolution will be blogged.”  Really?  The mere fact that a bunch of persons are posting paragraphs on the internet will change the world?  Kind of like that Twitter Revolution that was supposed to bring democracy to Iraq?  Ten years after the fact, it’s clear that blogging hasn’t fulfilled the high hopes that the pioneers set out with.

So, with that said, why am I blogging?  Well, I don’t really know.  Is it because I have stuff to say that I want to get off my chest?  Because I need something to fill my time?  Or is it just because?

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