28 June 2007

i have been thinking a lot about confidence lately. mostly because it feels like mine has dissolved and disappeared in the last four years. it's no secret that i'm an opinionated woman. that i really see no reason to keep my thoughts to myself. except when tact dictates that i do (and i'm generally tactful). but where i used to question everything in an academic setting--where i challenged everything, from professors' comments in class to the ideas presented in articles--i no longer do. i've watched my marginalia change from in-your-face questions challenging the foundational premises of an argument to basic regurgitation of points made in the text. and it drives me absolutely batty. because somewhere inside of me that provocateur is still there, still has questions demanding answers. but somehow i just can't ask them anymore.

and i want to know where my confidence has gone. in part it's a victim of the depression i've dealt with off and on for the last five years or so. in part it's a victim of a graduate program designed to beat people down. (i know that's extreme; and i don't think it's entirely overt; but that is undeniably one of the dynamics of grad school.) mostly i think it's been replaced by fear. fear of an unknown future. fear of loneliness. fear of sounding like a moron. fear of feeling like i've accomplished something only to be told i failed. and, worst of all, on some level i fear success--almost as if the beauty of the life i envision will make the pain of life that much greater, more unbearable, so it's better to just be dulled. mediocre accomplishment with mediocre pain to go with it.

the problem is, that the questions are still inside me waiting to be asked. the lover of beauty is never going away. i can't help seeing the world with my particular slant on truth. i'll never be able to live so that everything is just kind of even--no big ups, no big downs, just steady. because it will hurt that there's a part of me bottled up inside, no matter how much i manage to avoid pain.

so i've been thinking about confidence. about what it is. about how it works. about how i can get mine back. and it made me remember a talk elder holland gave during my last year at byu. 'cast not away therefore your confidence.' in it, elder holland recounts god showing moses a vision of all of the earth and all of its inhabitants and satan's subsequent appearance to moses, demanding that moses worship him. after moses rejects satan, saying 'get thee hence, satan; deceive me not,' satan cries out with a loud voice, saying 'i am the only begotten, worship me. and it came to pass that moses began to fear exceedingly; and as he began to fear, he saw the bitterness of hell. nevertheless, calling upon god, he received strength. . .' i've always been struck by the fact that moses only sees hell after he fears. so long as he retains the confidence of his knowledge of god and god's creation, he simply dismisses satan. elder holland calls attention to that fact, sharing several other examples of fear preventing god's children from relying upon their confidence. his talk is wonderful, and you should read it.

but every time i read that talk (and i've read it numerous times in the last ten years), i think about that phrase: 'cast not away therefore your confidence.' and i wonder what it means. what is it that we cast away when we allow fear to come between ourselves and our confidence? what is confidence, other than a vision from god (not something i can claim ever to have received)? what is it other than a revelation of a specific course of action (as in the example of moses parting the red sea, another example elder holland shares)? what is it in my situation, where confidence seems to be ability combined with a state of mind (or an inability combined with a state of mind)?

being a total english nerd, i turned to the oed (for those of you not english nerds, that translates to the oxford english dictionary), which defines confidence as: the mental attitude of trusting in or relying on a person or thing; assurance; assured expectation; assurance, boldness, fearlessness, arising from reliance; an object or ground of trust--that which gives confidence, boldness, or security. the etymology of the word indicates that it originally indicated two friends who mutually confide in or trust each other (makes sense; the etymology doesn't break the word down to its component parts, but con- as a latin prefix means 'with' and fid- is the root of words that mean faith).

but what does it mean spiritually? in psalm 65, the psalmist cries out, 'o god of our salvation; who art the confidence of all the ends of the earth.' proverbs 3 (a beautiful chapter of scripture) confirms this idea that god is himself the confidence of all the earth. after urging us to 'lean not unto [our] own understanding,' but to instead find wisdom and get understanding (by which god founds the earth and establishes the heavens), we are told: 'my son, let not them depart from thine eyes: keep sound wisdom and discretion: so shall they be life unto thy soul, and grace to thy neck. then shalt thou walk in thy way safely, and thy foot shall not stumble. when thou liest down, thou shalt not be afraid: yea, thou shalt lie down, and thy sleep shall be sweet. be not afraid of sudden fear, neither of the desolation of the wicked, when it cometh. for the lord shall be thy confidence, and shall keep thy foot from being taken.'

the lord shall be our confidence. and i'm struck by the repetition of 'foot'--our feet will not stumble. the lord will keep our feet from being taken. and it reminds me of the promise made in genesis after the fall that god will 'put enmity between thee [satan] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it [christ, but by extension all who take upon them christ's name] shall bruise thy head, and thou [satan] shalt bruise his heel.' god will be our confidence--our assured expectation; our boldness; our fearlessness--because through reliance on him, our feet will be kept. we will not stumble. satan may bruise our heel, but we will continue on without our feet being taken.

but what does that mean? in his talk, elder holland urges us not to stop once we've received revelation. and he explains that revelation is not just information (the knowledge that god is our confidence, for instance). it's also action. it's moving forward into the terrifying void created by parting the red sea. it's refusing to turn back in the face of an unprecedented course of action because the old captivity seems less bizarre and more sure than the way forward across dry land between towering walls of water (at least that's the way cecil b. demille makes it look).

just as it's a mistake to receive information and stop there without understanding and taking the way forward--the actions that will make that information efficacious--, it is a mistake to read far enough to get the philosophical without continuing to get the practical understanding of confidence. having told us that 'the lord shall be [our] confidence, and shall keep [our feet] from being taken,' the proverb continues: 'withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it. say not unto thy neighbour, go, and come again, and to morrow i will give; when thou hast it by thee. devise not evil against thy neighbour, seeing he dwelleth securely by thee. strive not with a man without cause, if he have done thee no harm.'

it seems to me that confidence--my confidence and yours--is not merely god protecting us from harm. it is also our continuing on in goodness. it is, as joseph smith demonstrated after having been tarred and feathered by a mob, continuing as usual in spite of whatever fear or difficulty we face. and as we do so, we will 'lie down, and [our] sleep shall be sweet.' and we will find that, according to isaiah, 'in returning and rest shall [we] be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be [our] strength.' indeed, if i have learned anything about confidence through the depression and darkness of the last few years, it's that raging at god exacerbates the fear and the loneliness, while quiet acceptance of his will fills me with peace. when i return to him and try to develop a relationship of mutual trust and faith with him, i no longer fear.

i think it is the mutuality of the relationship that creates confidence. in placing my faith in god, i also place my faith in his perception of me, in myself. in accepting him as the source of assurance, fearlessness, and boldness, i accept myself as assured, fearless, and bold. because he sees in me (and each of his children) all of the pure potential that lies within. in realizing (in the literal sense of making real in my life) christ's atoning sacrifice by doing his will, i fill my heart with love leaving no space for fear. because 'perfect love casteth out fear.' and god truly becomes my confidence.


  1. What a great post...exactly what I needed today. I agree that when in the depths of darkness it is so easy to turn against God and yet it does just leave me feeling more lonely. I heard this talk at BYU when R and I had been praying about getting married. We decided it was the right thing to do and yet it was still a bit scarey. I loved this talk because it made me realize now that a decision/answer had been given it was now up to us to act. Thanks for the great post...I love you and wish I had a bit of your poetic talent.

  2. i remember you and R telling me that this talk had been important in your decision making. it is a great one. i love elder holland.

    one of the things i've been so struck by is the way in which depression feeds itself. and usually by breaking ties that would in fact have helped counter the depression, whether ties with god or ties with other people. it can turn into a truly vicious self-feeding cycle that way.

    and so can its opposite. love begets love; peace begets peace.

  3. You are so smart...I totally think you should write a book. You always know what to say and have such a great way of saying it. I like to think I have those thoughts...I just can't spit them out of my mouth!

  4. Amy-
    Thank you for your post. I found much comfort in it today. Today....I turned away from everything I perhaps should have been doing, to work in my yard. It was WORK.....one weed led to another which led me to the most obnoxious ones, tree like weeds that grow up the middle of my forsythia (sp?) shrubs.....so for 5 straight hours (besides a short break for a phone call from Jen and a phone call to Jared) I WORKED......working my yard, ridding it from obnoxious weeds and thinking. thinking and wondering about my own future....Often I find myself unsure of myself and my decision making abilities......sometimes I "back off" doing things that in moments of quite inspiration completely excite me.....somehow, I come back down and get scared about my abilities. More than ever, I need to have confidence now. In the quite peaceful moments I feel my Saviors love and know he will support me - then I have moments that cause me to question my abilities and I wonder why I think I can do all that is required. So.....I just try and pray for help and most of all - I *LOOK* for the miracle. They always come somtimes in very small packages but always the help comes - building confidence that the LORD loves me.....he loves all of us.....and he does send the help for us to become the daughter/son he knows us to be AND needs us to be.
    love you,

  5. today must have been a day for gardening, tash. mom spent five or six hours out back planting new flowers. she says she's got to stop doing that and start planting one or two plants at a time, instead of a whole slew of them.

    i think you're right that we need to actively look for the miracles. i think that so often my problem is that i fail to recognize all the wonderful things in my own life. maybe if i looked with new eyes, i'd see the beauty and good that is already there.

  6. Thank you for this piece. I received a blessing last month from my bishop and the word confidence kept showing up in the blessing. I was told to keep my confidence...then I would be blessed with confidence etc...and that I needed to make sure my confidence. I never really thought of confidence in a gospel setting much until the blessing and I've found myself thinking back to confidence in the last couple of weeks...so this was timely for me. Thanks again for this.

  7. you're welcome. i'm glad if it helped in any way. if you have suggestions for making confidence a reality, i'm all ears...

  8. Amy, WOW. What a great exposition of that passage. This could totally turn into a great sacrament meeting talk someday. If they let you pick your topic.

    I know what you mean about confidence disappearing. I sometimes think I don't have the chops for grad school anymore, if I were to go back.

    But you, Amy. I don't know anyone who has more chops than you. You're going to be a great prof someday.

  9. i think you have what it takes for grad school, caroline. no question. not only the intelligence, but the passion. you'll do brilliantly.

    if i ever get the chance to turn this into a talk (which i was thinking i'd like to do, given the chance), i'll let you know. you can come be my own private cheering section in the back like last time...

  10. I am Michael's sister, I got to your blog from his. Thank you for the post. I was what I needed to hear right now!