17th Ask Josh – Self-evaluations

In Uncategorized on September 4, 2008 at 12:35 pm

[Name omitted] inquires

Josh, …
Today is my birthday and, as such, it is a day of deep reflection. I find myself really questioning whether or not I am actually doing my best. Now I lay my head down every night and ask myself if I have really given that day all I have, if I have really done all I could do to make sure that I am working at becoming the best I can be, but on my birthday I almost obsess over these self-evaluations. Am I loving my brothers and sisters? Am I working hard enough? I am serving enough? Am I showing my Heavenly Father that I love him? I have been told that to ask myself these questions every day is not healthy. People have said that it causes me to have unrealistic expectations of myself, but my personal belief is that we cannot achieve excellence if we do not expect ourselves to do so. To conclude, and my apologies for the length of this query, what do you think? Is it unhealthy to question whether or not I have worked hard enough every day? AmI just setting myself up for disappointment?
Use this as you will. Anonymous or not, it doesn’t really matter. I will, however, inform you that I am looking for a reply that is exceptionally profound, but no pressure or anything.
Thanks, Josh!


Dear Friend,

How I wish we could have this conversation face-to-face. I would give you a great big hug. Bless your heart. I remember looking up to you as a kid, especially when I saw you in that play which shall go unnamed for anonymity’s sake. You did a great job, and I have always enjoyed our run-ins in our quaint little hometown where one can so easily be tempted to ask themselves, “Is this it? Is this really my life?”

No human being is ordinary, and I suppose that’s partially why it is so hard to see extraordinariness in ourselves. It’s like that Despair poster: “Remember, you are unique… just like everybody else.” We try our best and our strengths don’t seem so strong to us because we know where the flaws are, even in our own strengths.

It kind of reminds me of my maternal grandmother and her quilts. She made grand, colorful, intricate quilts. To my eye, and perhaps to the normal naked eye, they were flawless, perfect in every way. Yet she was disgusted with every one she ever made. My dad once suggested that she enter one of her quilts into a local contest. She absolutely would not have it. “I know where the mistakes are,” she said. While our focus was drawn to the beauty of the entire piece, she couldn’t move her focus away from the flaws that had gone unseen by the rest of us.

Let me praise you for wanting to be continually better. It is one of my favorite pastimes. Perfection is the goal, and why not? I think the quest for perfection requires a good sense of humor as you inevitably have your stumbles. And sometimes you may feel left all to yourself and unsupported in that quest. You’re going to have to learn to laugh at that, too. I like to think of the attitude as being perfection-oriented as opposed to being a perfectionist.

In C.S. Lewis’s book, “The Screwtape Letters”, the head devil, Screwtape, describes Jesus’s attitude towards humans who struggle yet nevertheless strive to be good:

“He [Jesus] leaves the creature [us, you and me] to stand up on its own legs–to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. … He wants them to learn to walk, and therefore must take away His hand, and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles” (Chapter 8, italics added).

While that isn’t exactly what I would call authoritative scripture, I don’t think that Brother Lewis is too far off the mark.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell had this to say on the subject of your question:

“We [should] distinguish more clearly between divine discontent and the devil’s dissonance, between dissatisfaction with self and disdain for self. We need the first and must shun the second, remembering that when conscience calls to us from the next ridge, it is not solely to scold but also to beckon” (Quote Book, 307).

Did you catch that part? We need to have that “divine discontent.” Something inside us must tell us to keep moving towards that estate, and state, where we want to be.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with criticizing myself, because I love myself. I do it in the way I would criticize someone else. Kind of like what it says in Doctrine & Covenants, section 121, verse 43:

“Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved.”

You wouldn’t want reprove someone with more harshness than your ability to increase love afterwards. And you wouldn’t want someone to do that to you, either. But when it comes to self-reproving and self-loving, we may only focus on the former and neglect the latter because we may think of it as prideful to feel good about ourselves.

We are allowed to continue reaching for something better as far as the things of eternity are concerned, such as Christlike characteristics, which, conveniently, are portable.

Elder Keith J. Hilbig said in the October 2007 General Conference, “Whatever level of spiritual development each of us may presently have, there always exists a higher level within our reach.”

Aren’t you glad that you are aware that you can and ought to be better? I know I am. Thomas Edison said, “Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure” (qtd. in Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Colossal Collection of Quotable Quotes, p. 17).

I love this counsel from President Brigham Young on perfection. Actually I have two bits of counsel from him:

“We are not required in our sphere to be as perfect as Gods and angels are in their spheres.” (Journal of Discourse 10:223)

“Those who do right, and seek the glory of the Father in heaven, whether their knowledge be little or much, or whether they can do little, or much, if they do the very best they know how, they are perfect. … When we are doing as well as we know how in the sphere and station which we occupy here … we are justified.” (Deseret News. August 31, 1854, p. 1)

I believe you should continue striving for perfection so long as you are able to enjoy it, even with all its difficulties. Run not faster than you have strength. You are not an overnight job. If it was so easy to be perfect you wouldn’t appreciate it anyway.

“[T]oo much anxious opening of the oven door and the cake falls instead of rising. So it is with us. If we are always selfishly taking our temperature to see if we are happy, we will not be.” (Neal A. Maxwell, “Patience” BYU Speeches of the Year, 27 November 1979)

I put that last quote there to answer your question about whether or not it is healthy to evaluate yourself every day. Personally, I don’t have a problem with it. Missionaries are expected to give a daily accounting of their labors in prayer. It is a habit I enjoy keeping. I love the quest for excellence. It doesn’t get me down, it just gets me going. If there is a better way, find it. Why not? Not an overhaul every day, and I don’t even suggest you make a list of one thing to improve every day. Just having the idea in your mind constantly that you will take make your good into better and your better into your best.

I have to get to class now. If I have anything else to say on the subject I’ll put it down.

Have a perfect day.

Oh, and happy birthday.


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