For those of you who don’t know, my current calling is that of Sunday School instructor. I have the privilege of meeting with some great high school-aged young men and young women every week.
Some doctrine first, ten the story: This past Sunday we were cracking open the concept of agency, and the truth that “Agency is precious. We can foolishly, blindly give it away, but it cannot be forcibly taken from us.” (Boyd. K. Packer, “Cleansing the Inner Vessel)
Then we were discussed the idea of acting vs. being acted upon, as put forth by Nephi:
“And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.” (2 Nephi 2:26)
The idea that we are supposed to act for ourselves, and not be acted upon, is a pretty important concept. (Type “acted upon” into the search at LDS.org, and you will find all sorts of stuff – or just click here.)
Back to the story. As a final thought I tossed out the following idea:
“We don’t wan’t to go through life being lemmings.”
I was met by blank stares. I saw no hint of recognition in 11 pairs of eyes.
“What’s a lemming?” one asked.
“You know, lemmings marching into the sea, etc.”
Nope. So I asked the class, “Who knows what a lemming is?”
Nothing. Out of 11 very smart, capable teenagers, NONE of them knew what a lemming is.
About 15 seconds later, someone had already found a YouTube video of lemmings jumping off a cliff into the sea. It wasn’t a high-point as far as reverence is concerned, but they were suddenly very interested. I immediately remembered that very video from a Disney Nature film when I was young.
After class, I grabbed a handful of kids from a different class and asked them if they knew what a lemming was. None did.
On the drive home, I turned to my teenage son and asked him, “Do you know what a lemming is?”
“Umm. I think so. Is it a bird?”
I was shocked that an idiom that is so common to me was not familiar to this next crop coming up. When I got home, I googled it, just to reassure myself that I’m not nuts.
The first? This: (Ain’t it so cute?)
The second? A metaphor for people following blindly and rushing to destruction, like this:
I was even surprised that no one knew the cool computer game “Lemmings.”
The idea of “lemmings” has always been in my vernacular. It is especially worthwhile to understand lemming-ness in today’s world, full of loud voices and hype. So, I made my best attempt to teach my class that it is best not to live like a lemming. Or die like a lemming.
I decided to find out more about the idiom. It is well-entrenched in English and other languages. yet the source is tougher to find. It turns out that there is a bit of controversy surrounding lemmings, and that their tendency to run off of cliffs is actually a myth. Yes, lemmings don’t act like lemmings.
It turns out that they don’t actually commit mass suicide by running to their deaths. News to me! Many would believe that the very film that my kids found in class was responsible for the myth. Apparently that footage of the lemmings was fabricated for the Disney movie ‘White Wilderness.” Yes, they forced those little rodents off the cliff to make a movie. (link)
Because of the film, many credit the birth of the idiom to Disney, but this would be incorrect. A great article shows that the idiom was in use as far back as 1930. (link) It looks like Disney was trying to capture an existing idiom on film. They couldn’t capture it in nature, so they concocted it. Disney didn’t create the myth, but they sure legitimized and perpetuated it.
Lemmings don’t really act like lemmings in the way we would expect them to act. No following blindly, no mass suicides, etc. It seems that they aren’t even very social, let alone mob-like.
Here we are with a generation that does not know an idiom that can be of great help in visualizing the important gospel topic or not being “acted upon.” If there was ever a time to teach our youth that they are agents unto themselves, and that blindly following peer pressure and today’s culture is dangerous, it is now – and the lemmings serve that message well.
Problem: The idiom is not on solid ground. It must be based on some kind of undocumented behavior, but it does not involve mass suicide as far as the experts can tell.
You may rightly ask, “What is your point, MMM?”
I guess the message is this: We can teach people to not be lemmings, as long as we are willing to wrongfully judge those lemmings.
I have a headache now. (But we do have a great example that what I thought was gonna be a great message kinda fell apart. It happens.) Have a great day.
Here is a post about Agency that I wrote a couple of years ago that is timely for Sunday school teachers this month: “Please Stop Saying That: You are Taking Away My Agency.”
And this, thanks to a comment from “Annie.”