Like my fellow missionaries in Ecuador, I missed traditional home-cooked American meals. We were all excited when we heard that one of the missionaries had a recipe for pancakes, and a local family had gathered all the ingredients, including butter and syrup. However, we were sorely disappointed when we took our first bite. We had switched the quantities for salt and sugar, producing an inedible result. Not wanting to waste all the remaining batter, we kept adding more and more sugar to compensate for the surplus amount of salt. But we ran out of ingredients before we could make even one edible pancake. We were ready to throw them all away until one of the missionaries suggested that we feed them to the family’s large hunting dogs. We had a great time throwing the pancakes like Frisbees to the dogs, who jumped and eagerly consumed each pancake in one gulp. Unfortunately, the next morning the dogs were sick, creating quite a mess to clean up.
This experience brought home the truth that an excess amount of even an essential ingredient will ruin an awesome meal and can destroy a great life. It is human nature to gravitate to extremes. I call this the pendulum effect. For example, we see the pendulum effect today in the political arena, where polarization rules the day. All social groups have boundaries, whether geographical or ideological. Conflicts often occur when these borders are threatened, so it is a natural group dynamic to keep its members away from the borders where they may stray, leading to entrenched beliefs and behavior. Just as this dynamic contributed to the creation of different languages, it still inhibits communication today and leads to what is described as “group think.”
However, the truth and the best course of action are usually found between two extremes. This concept was recognized by ancient philosophers. Aristotle taught his students to look for and follow the golden mean between the extremes of excess and deficiency. He used the example of the ancient cherished virtue of courage that existed between the excess vice of recklessness and the deficient state of cowardice. In the East, Buddha also taught about the Middle Way between the extremes of self-indulgence and asceticism.
It is important to beware of our strengths. We generally feel we are vulnerable because of our weaknesses, but in actuality, we are more likely to err by taking our strengths too far. A mild-mannered person needs to be on guard not to become a doormat. A dynamic leader needs to be careful not to become a tyrant. An intelligent individual is at risk of becoming a know-it-all. This principle applies to all our strengths. Satan finds it much easier to entice us to overemphasize our strengths than to tempt us where we are on guard.
When we rely too heavily on our strong points, pride sets in as we begin to identify with that characteristic and become more out of balance and one dimensional. Our perspective changes, and we become more narrow-minded. The longer we proceed down this path, the more we alienate other people and become isolated. Eventually, our strengths can destroy us without our even batting an eye. Consequently, beware of your strengths.
I end this essay with another experience I had in cooking with an excessive amount of salt. When I was in the sixth grade, I worked in the cafeteria at lunchtime. One day, shortly before the first group of students was to arrive, I was startled to hear one of the cooks exclaim, “Oh no!” Instead of adding the correct number of tablespoons of salt to the mashed potatoes, she had added that number of cups of salt. The cooks frantically discussed their options and decided they had no choice but to throw out the whole batch and start over from scratch, even if they were not able to finish in time to serve all the students. Unlike us inexperienced missionaries, these cooks realized that the only solution lay in creating a whole new batch, not in making adjustments to what they had.
I have learned that sometimes it is best to let go of a long-held or cherished belief or attitude when we recognize that it was created by the pendulum effect. We always need to be on guard not to let our life get out of balance by gravitating to extremes in any aspect of our lives, including our strengths.