My history teacher wrote something in my yearbook that day I’ll never forget. She penned the simple yet elegant advice to “aim high.” Throughout my adult life I’ve never lost that book, nor forgotten that message.
It was a notion that completely contradicted everything I’d ever been taught about myself. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but she was trying to help me. She knew the organization I was heavily involved with and how they viewed personal success. She took the opportunity to show me that there was a different way of thinking, and that she had faith in me as an individual.
I grew up being taught that a desire for personal success was something to be looked down on. The group needs were always said to be of utmost importance. Individualism, on the other hand, was seen to be selfish and arrogant. It was strongly suggested to me, over the years, that the desire to succeed in life was a bad thing.
Ambition compared with psychopathy
JW.org has a section designed for teenagers. Among a host of activities in this section is a worksheet on the topic of Absalom, who is a character found in the Old Testament. He was a power-hungry, psychopathic narcissist who stopped at nothing to gain access to his father’s throne, even murdering his own family members.
Instead of focusing on the clear psychopathy of this infamous Bible figure, the worksheet (entitled “Guard against ambition”) blames his actions on ambition. After telling teenagers to read the Bible story and “visualize the scenes,” “hear the voices,” and “feel the emotions of the characters,” they’re instructed to write down what they learned about the danger of an “ambitious spirit.”
Furthermore, the worksheet asks questions such as: “How might you fall into the trap of ambition?” and, “How can you avoid developing undue pride?” These loaded questions presuppose that Absalom’s actions were simply the product of his ambition and pride when clearly they fit in line with the modern understanding of psychopathy. The worksheet targets the general concept of ambition and stigmatizes it as dangerous.
This concept perfectly fits with my experience as a child. Personal success was, and still is, being targeted by the official site of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Clearly, Watchtower is threatened by the ambitious youth among their ranks, and are taking action to demotivate them. The worksheet accomplishes this by connecting the general term of ambition to the ghastly deeds of a psychopathic murderer.
Ambition – a character defect?
Anthony Morris III recently did a piece on JW Broadcasting where he went on a long tirade against the “dangers” of higher learning. To make his point he showed an interview with Philip Brumley, who was sent to obtain a law degree by Watchtower headquarters. He had this to say about his experience:
“Something happened that I was not prepared for. When a person goes to law school the instructors, law professors, essentially tell the class: you’re the hope of humanity. You happened to be born in the best country on this planet. You happen to be among the few in this country who have the circumstances to be able to attend law school. You are the future presidents, governors, senators, judges.
But not only that you are also the future social activists, the one’s who are going to protect the disenfranchised, the poor, the one’s who need their rights protected. If you do well, civilization will do well. If you do poorly, humanity may not survive. Now that may sound like a grandiose statement, but when you hear that repeated over a 4 year period, it can start creeping into your mind.
Another thing that happened related to that was there is a fierce spirit of competition in law school. And I brought with me the notion of ‘this is a bethel assignment’, so I want to do well, not just well, but very well. And David, in the first year I scored rather poorly, and that shocked me. I thought I have to do better than this.
A deep spirit of competition came into my being where I would devote whatever time was required to do well, and, in one sense it worked because when I graduated, I graduated cumlaude which means top 10% of the class, but both the spirit of competition and the thought that somehow you were special because you had this training had marked my personality.”
Contrary to what Brumley said, what he was told at law school doesn’t sound grandiose at all. The fate of civilization IS intimately connected with those who choose to practice law. Lawyers DO assume a special role in the protection of our society that is based on our unalienable rights, which require protection.
Even Watchtower relies on lawyers for survival in the modern world. This was precisely why Brumley was sent to law school in the first place. His education was being paid for because such skills are required in order to protect the rights of the organization and Jehovah’s Witnesses in general.
He admits that being in an environment of fierce competition directly contributed to his success (which headquarters reaps dividends from to this day), but he cannot help but also issue a strong warning:
“It wasn’t until I got out of law school that my wife Elizabeth sat me down one day and in so many words told me, ‘you’re not the man I married.’ And I was taken aback, ‘what do you mean?’ she pointed out the character flaws that had developed in me: ambition, egotism, selfishness, combativeness, being argumentative and the more I listened to her the more I realized she was absolutely right. I had allowed these defects to creep into my personality.”
Just as in the JW.org worksheet, he demonizes the general concept of ambition by coupling it with a list of character flaws. He calls ambition a “defect” that crept into his personality from his time at university which required purging.
Among the 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses are many young people who are at a point in their life where they’re seriously contemplating their futures. Tools such as JW Broadcasting and JW.org give the Watchtower more ability to exploit such impressionable people. Convincing them that making something of yourself, or trying to better the world around you, is selfish and egotistical makes it easier to siphon them into something that will benefit the organization.
As I look back I greatly appreciate the message my 7th grade teacher gave me on my last day in her class. The world most certainly is a better place when individuals do what it takes to accomplish great things. Without the ambitions of those who came before us, we’d all still be in the dark ages. Only by believing that we can be something more do we expand our horizons and discover new ways of thinking and being.
It’s sad to see that the leaders of the Watchtower are blind to this basic truth. They are too busy growing their empire and protecting its interests to take a look at what the world has actually accomplished. Their doctrine can never describe a world that is moving forward. They can only teach that everything is doomed and only they are worth investing in.
It is my hope that many of the younger people in the religion will not buy into this perverted message. Despite what the Watchtower would have us believe, helping yourself and making the world a better place is not akin to rearranging chairs on the Titanic. History proves that even single individuals can profoundly impact the world for the better. They just have to believe in themselves – and the Watchtower is trying to nip that in the bud within their ranks.
Imagine if people such as Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein had taken on a mindset like the Watchtower advises. What if they had given up their talents in favor of spreading a doomsday message throughout the globe? What would be different for us if they never achieved success? The prospect is frightening.
Instead of being swayed by the fatalistic views of a doomsday cult, why not continue in the direction in which humanity has always been moving?