On Cheating Yourself

“On Cheating Yourself,” New Era, Apr. 1972, 32

On Cheating Yourself

Some years ago I came across a statement by Karl G. Maeser, the first president of what is now Brigham Young University: “He who cheats others is a knave, but he who cheats himself is a fool.” It startled me.

Also, Mr. Conrad N. Hilton of the Hilton Hotel chain paraphrased the same idea: “I have been taught that there is one person in the world you never want to fool, and that is yourself, because that is plain stupidity.”

Mr. Hilton told about a plain bar of iron being worth about five dollars. But that same iron, if made into horseshoes, would be worth $10.50. If it were made into needles, it would be worth $3,285. And if turned into balance springs for watches, its worth would be over $250,000.

Apparently the value of the raw iron is only what it costs to process it from the hill. Its greater value is determined by what is made of it. People are much the same as iron. You or I can remain nothing more than raw material, or we can be polished to a high degree. Our value is determined by what we make of ourselves.

Millet, the French painter, paid 25¢ for a yard of canvas. He paid 50¢ more for a brush and some paints. Then, on the canvas that cost only 25¢, he threw in all the glory of his genius as a painter and gave us a work of art called The Angelus, which eventually sold for $105,000. In other words, 75¢ worth of raw materials combined with inspiration, ability, and enthusiasm can be sold for $104,999.25 more.

In the next decade, millions of young people will drop out of school and shortly thereafter will be seeking jobs—millions of unprepared young people competing for new jobs. Their pay will be less, their working conditions poorer, and their competition more overwhelming than for those youth who persist in making themselves ready for responsible employment. A good education is said to be an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity. To secure neither the ornament nor the refuge is a shortsighted approach to life.

Unprepared youth represent millions of pieces of canvas without an Angelus painting on them. They are like tons and tons of iron still in the bar, or at best made into horseshoes instead of watch springs. Over a lifetime, the difference in income between the high school graduate and the college graduate often runs into many hundreds of thousands of dollars. How foolish it is for a person to fail to develop potential talents and thus content himself with mundane things when he could soar into the exciting realms of significant accomplishment. As Whittier wrote:

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”

I have interviewed many young men for missions, and I have asked them this question: “What were your grades in high school or college?” A little embarrassed, many have answered, “Oh, about a C average.” I have then asked, “Was that the best you could do?” And almost without exception their answers have been, “No, I was capable of better work. I fooled around and wasted my time quite a bit.” Such young men then realize that they have cheated themselves. One year, two years or more have gone, never to return, and this time has only been spent, not invested.

How often I have talked to men who have spent many years of their early lives in wanton waste of energy, time, and effort, and who have, in later years, found themselves. Always they have this lament: “What a fool I have been! Why couldn’t I have seen the joys of service long before I did? Oh, the many years I have wasted. I have cheated myself.”

Have you known people to pay large fees for professional service only to disregard the counsel given, or to pay many dollars for a prescribed medicine and then pour it down the drain? Yet, have not such people robbed themselves as mercilessly as those who turn their backs on golden opportunities to prepare themselves for a happy life?

There are many other ways we can cheat ourselves too. We may get angry with our parents, or a teacher, or the bishop, and dwarf ourselves into nameless anonymity as we shrivel and shrink under the venom and poison of bitterness and hatred. While the hated one goes on about his business, little realizing the suffering of the hater, the latter cheats himself.

Proverbs 10:18 tells us: “He that hideth hatred with lying lips, and he that uttereth a slander, is a fool.” [Prov. 10:18]

And there are those who try to free themselves from moral obligations by claiming that they are atheists. The current generation has no monopoly on this self-deception. Thousands of years ago the psalmist observed that “God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God.” He then wrote that they had “altogether become filthy,” that there was “none that doeth good, no, not one.” And his profound chastisement at that time was this: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” (See Ps. 53:1–3.)

“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” The children of Israel poured themselves a molten calf; and though it was gold, it could neither hear, nor smell, nor see, nor think, nor feel. They had divested themselves of their jewelry and had received nothing in return. How foolish they were! How blind!

There have been so many people who have come to me and expressed their remorse for having cheated themselves. There was a young man who had postponed marriage for many reasons: to devote himself unhindered to advanced education, to accumulate material goods, and other reasons. After he finally married, he said, “My life is now so beautiful. Why did I waste so many years without these blessings? I have traded dollars for pennies.”

There was a young woman who had had a child while unwed. She had traded the child for care, hospital fees, and anonymity. Years passed, and she tried to recover her child but without success. Finally she married, and after a year or two with no children, her fears were confirmed by her doctor, and she came to weep. She would remain childless. Oh, how cheaply she had sold her one chance for motherhood.

There was a young couple who found themselves deeply in love with each other, or so they thought. He was not living the standards, and they decided they would not at that time qualify for a temple recommend. Their marriage was a civil one when it could have been an eternal one. The years passed and children graced their home. There was no religious activity and little spiritual comfort when death stalked the premises and the marriage and sweet family relationships were terminated by the grim reaper.

There have been those who have finally found great joy in the gospel after having resisted it for years. Invariably they have said, “All these years we’ve spurned the missionaries. Why didn’t we listen sooner? We could have had many years more of the happiness we now enjoy.”

I had a good friend who was not a member of the Church; hence he had received little education against the poisonous weed that is smoked so universally throughout the world. It took hold of him, this habit. It engulfed him. After years of chain-smoking, one cigarette after another, a cough developed—a hacking cough. There followed great distress. There was a hospital bed for several weeks, and then a new grave with flowers on it. He was a good man, honorable, honest, full of integrity. I think he had never cheated a fellowman; but oh, how he cheated himself! From Seneca to Shakespeare to the present time these words have echoed down to us: “What fools these mortals be!”

How can one justify cheating himself? To postpone life for lesser values is to deny opportunity. To marry by civil ceremony when eternal covenants could be made is to take unreasonable chances with the future. To terminate activity in the Church just to spite leaders or to give vent to wounded feelings is to cheat ourselves. And Dr. Maeser said, “He who cheats himself is a fool.”

Many of us are foolish in our relationship with the Lord. Only a fool would worship the pot instead of the potter, the tree instead of the planter, the gold instead of the master chemist, the mind instead of him who brought it into being, the created instead of the creator. But what fools we mortals are to seek after those things that are of lesser value and to ignore his teachings as unimportant.

The Lord, through the great prophet Ether, said some twenty or more centuries ago, “Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness.” (Ether 12:26.)

How can we receive of this grace and love from the Lord? The scriptures hold the remedy for man’s foolishness. The prophets are our guide to wisdom. The Master is our great example and the source of all true counsel. In Luke we read:

“… O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken:

“Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?

“And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25–27.)

I urge you sons and daughters of God, who are in the image of your creator, to put your minds in the image of his, and to discipline and mold your spirits after the pattern of the Only Begotten. If you will do so, the Lord has promised that joys will follow eternally, and you need never fear of having cheated yourself of what might have been.

Illustrated by McRay Magleby