Back in the late 1980s, the comedian (now U.S. Senator) Al Franken created the memorable character of Stuart Smalley, a mock self-help guru with a show called Daily Affirmations. Franken lampooned the self-help craze and affirmation trend of the ’80s and early ’90s with such classic lines as “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
The problem that Franken saw with affirmations was that they are, in a sense, a kind of brainwashing. It just may be that right now you are not smart enough, or good enough, or likable enough to achieve your goals. That doesn’t mean you can’t be good enough (or aren’t), just that you currently might not be. In addition, the goal you are trying to manifest with your affirmations might not truly be the right one for you. Assessing and developing your capabilities in the right direction requires reflection, perseverance, and work–much more work than simply saying an affirmation.
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said: Sow a thought, and you reap an act; Sow an act, and you reap a habit; Sow a habit, and you reap a character; Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.
But he did not mean “sow” as a synonym for simply planting. A planted seed might very well wither and die or get plucked up and eaten by a crow, as Jesus well teaches in the parable of the sower1.
Emerson meant that the person we are and want to be is defined by a process of cultivation that begins with our thoughts. With daily affirmations we often forget the process part and think we can just leap ahead to the finish line, minus the hard sweat. When reflecting on Emerson’s passage let’s imagine instead that he wrote it this way: Sew a thought, and you reap an act; Sew an act, and you reap a habit; Sew a habit, and you reap a character; Sew a character, and you reap a destiny.
Sewing is a process of creation. It is only by creation that we are truly transformed.
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- When anyone hears the message of the kingdom without understanding it, evil comes and snatches away what has been sown in their minds. By the seed which was sown on rocky places is meant the receivers who hear the message and at once accept it joyfully; but they stand for only a short time because they have no roots. By the seed which was sown among the brambles is meant the receivers who hear the message, but the cares of life and the glamour of wealth completely choke the message. – Matthew 19-22 [↩]