Monday, January 23, 2012

Cogs in Zion (Moses 7:18)

I've been pondering a lot lately on the 2 fundamental contradictory desires that we as human beings experience relative to our social lives: On the one hand, we strive to fit in; nobody likes to be alone and we yearn for companionship of others and finding common ground. On the other hand, we desire to be unique; nobody wants to think that they are just a cookie-cutter clone of everyone else. And so we face these two dueling desires: the desire to be different vs. the desire to fit in with everyone else. The gospel and the world both make this dichotomy reconcilable, though in vastly different ways.

Let's talk first about the world's approach. The world's predominate philosophies and views have shifted significantly throughout time, but today's prevailing preoccupation with the modern secular humanist view over-emphasizes the individuality desire. Huge stock is placed in "being yourself" and telling each individual that their own needs are most important, far outweighing that of the collective. In fact, the modern superhero portrayed in film and art is viewed in a much more tragic light than yesteryear, given their unfortunate obligation to serve other. Take the popular song "Superman" by Five for Fighting as an example. In this song, Superman, who in the 1950's television show was very happy in fulfilling his role to society, now laments the tragedy it is that he has to focus so much on others instead of his own needs. He sings, "it's not easy to be me," despite the fact that he can fly, jump over buildings, stop bullets, see through walls, and shoot both heat and freezing rays from his eyes. And this song resonates with us because as a society we respect those who serve others, but don't envy them because we've been raised in a culture which emphasizes personal desire and advancement as the primary route to happiness. The idea that giving up our own desires to serve others is vastly foreign, and accompanied in films by a noble but tragic sense of respect for those poor individuals who have to sacrifice individuality in any measure.

By the world's standard in the 21st century, we fulfill the desire to "fit in" specifically by over-accentuating the individuality. Another friend of mine with SSA recently lamented to me that a gay activist he knows seems to adamantly insist that if a same-sex attracted individual isn't openly gay and living the "gay lifestyle," then that individual is actually committing a moral mistake and cannot be fully happy because he is "denying who he is." Thus, to be accepted by the mainstream philosophical bunch of our day, we have to over-indulge on the other desire. It is by trying to be absolutely unique that others can accept us, and if they think we aren't actually trying out hardest to be "ourselves" as they see us, they actually don't accept us! This seems to make sense to them as a reconciliation of the two desires.

Now let me present an alternative to the common views of the world today. Obviously not everyone ascribes to the secular humanist path, and that became evident to me through another contemporary song, "Helplessness Blues" by Fleet Foxes. The first verse of this profound song instantly throws the fundamental pillars of secular humanism to the wind. It goes:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique,
A snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.
And now, after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.

Pretty profound stuff, eh? The first two lines paint the secular view we are so surrounded by: an abundant emphasis on our differences that make us unique like snowflakes. But the author then ponders and rejects this philosophy by saying that instead of a snowflake, he'd rather be a cog. That is an incredibly bold statement, because the very word "cog" in this secular world has developed a bit of a negative connotation. That people who allow themselves to be "cogs" are those who give in to the pressures of an over-bearing society and adopt authoritarian fascism. Nobody wants to be merely a cog when you can be a snowflake! And yet, which of the two is more lasting? The snowflake will be gone when the sun comes out. The cog will endure. The cog puts others first and learns that he is part of something greater than himself. And yet being a cog doesn't mean we have to sacrifice our individuality either! Indeed, each cog is separate and necessary for the machine to function properly: it is the very fact that each cog is different and fulfills a different space in the machine that allows it to operate.

The world will tell you to "be yourself;" I would say "be true to yourself" and God encourages you to become a better self. The world will tell you "you are fine just the way you are." That one's tricky, because in some ways it is true. But it also implies that you should STAY just they way you are, when we can all strive for improvement. God wants us ultimately to be better than the way we are, and offers the help we need to achieve that goal. The world tells us that if we sacrifice some desires to conform with the Church, we are actually in the wrong. "Conform" is word that has unfortunately gotten an even worse rap than "cog" even though it isn't always bad--it can actually represent a very noble choice. When we recognize something better for not only ourselves in the long-run, but especially for the sake of others both present and future, and sacrifice our own will to conform to that ideal, we are doing something remarkably good. And this means we will sometimes have to fight against the individuality desire that the world tells us to let loose without bounds. Some conformity may be required of us, but we should welcome it. And why not? After all, God cares about saving His people all together, not just as isolated individuals. That's why the Church exists. He wants the collective individual cogs to come together, and when they do, they form what He calls Zion. As we read in Moses 7:18,

"And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them."

That, my friends, is an ideal worth a little conformity. And remember, being a cog doesn't mean sacrificing individuality. Indeed, the Lord relies upon the fact that we will each have different strengths to offer as individuals in order for the machine to run properly. That we may all strive to be worthwhile cogs in the great machinery of Zion, and not merely fleeting snowflakes that will melt away tomorrow is my prayer.

My best,


P.S. Church today was amazing. I spoke in Church, actually, and largely adapted my earlier (and so-far favorite) post "Grace and Gasoline" into a talk. I felt really guided in how I delivered it and then afterwards had a fantastic conversation with my bishop about Grace. Our discussion gave me lots to chew on and I imagine I might write a follow-up/sequel post to that earlier post on grace not too long from now. :)


  1. cool thoughts, thanks for sharing.

  2. This is one of the best blogs I've read in a while. Thank you for touching on two very different and distinct differences. The world’s way to “be different” and “the Lord’s way to be different. It's funny how in order to be true to ourselves the world would have us conform to standards that would make us just like everyone else. We need to get the right body part pierced or inked. We need to wear the right jeans, or have the right phone. We have to agree on the same idea of what is right and be intolerant of anyone who doesn’t agree with us. We must always be "socially correct."

    The real irony is that the people who are different, unique and yes in the true sense of the word “peculiar,” the ones who do stand out and the ones who shine are the once who don't try to fit in. These brave disciples stand out and are pillars of light to others, why those who follow the crowd to be different look like carbon copies of each other.

    It's like the new concept that competition is a bad thing, that there should never be a loser. That everyone should get an award and that empowering people’s self-esteem is far better than awarding achievement. The end result is the adoration of mediocrity. The world’s notion is that to try to be better is somehow incorrect, and that we actually punish people who are trying and that we look down on success because it makes those who don't try feel bad.

    We were created in the Lords image, he is the ideal to conform to, the example to emulate. We can all do that differently in the way snowflakes differ, but we can also do it in a way that shows respect and honors what we have been given. I don't think this is a bad thing either.


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