Part 1:

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.

Two definitions:

Screen Shot 2017-02-07 at 7.23.11 AM

The first? This: (Ain’t it so cute?)


The second? A metaphor for people following blindly and rushing to destruction, like this:

People lemmings

I was even surprised that no one knew the cool computer game “Lemmings.”

Lemmings game

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.

Part 2

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.

Part 3

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.”

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  1. Two quick thoughts:
    As he was dedicating the Kamiakin Seminary building in Kennewick WA Elder Hugh Pinnock taught the seminary students, “God gave us agency so we could choose to become like Him, not so we could do dumb stupid things.” He went on to teach that whenever we use our agency for anything other than its intended purpose we are perverting the very reason for that great gift.
    Second thought: If you want more fun asked your students if they have any concept of a hen gathering her chicks under her wings. My wife and I explored this with our institute students (most of them masters and PhD candidates) when on a CES mission in Ann Arbor MI. Not a clue. Frequently we teach very simple truths using concepts that are totally unfamiliar to our students

  2. By the way, Disney was sued for bulldozing the lemmings off the cliff for their movie. If you want one that is real and applies to this situation. “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”

  3. Wow, I thought everyone knew about lemmings. For a current pop culture reference, comic strip “Pearls Before Swine” (with the nice Biblical name) has a running gag about lemmings jumping from Lemmings’ Leap. Do a Google images search for “pearls before swine lemmings” for a dozen or so different takes on the meme.

  4. Read of the Gadarene Swine, in the New Testament. Recounted in the gospels of Mark Luke and Matthew, according to Wikipedia. “My name is Legion, for we are many.” If, in exercising our agency in error, arrogance, or open rebellion, we open the door to any one particular demon (sin), have we any guarantee, that only that one will enter? How many accompany drug or alcohol abuse? How many follow pornography? Scary thought? Oughta be.

  5. I would go so far as ro say we STILL don’t want to be even like the Disney lemmings—all being forced off a cliff by outside forces. We should turn around and fight back. Like the Monty Python Rabbit. With the fangs.

    1. “If you do doubt your courage or your strength, come no further, for death awaits you all with nasty, big, pointy teeth… “

  6. How could anyone not know about lemmings? I am as shocked as you were. I am even more stunned to learn that they don’t actually jump off a cliff in large groups. I guess I hadn’t thought through how the survival of the species would work if they all jumped off cliffs with any regularity. I played the video game, I trusted Disney, and every other lemming reference I have ever heard. I am now a jumble of hurt feelings and sadness, both for the youth of today and for the misinformed youth of my past. This is a lot to take in.

  7. I also teach Sunday School (14-15 last year and 16-17 this year) and recall giving the same example of lemmings to blank stares. My example was that we all seem to be lemmings in the gospel. Take for instance missionaries – all dress alike (for men white shirts and ties) and serve the same Lord. I took it to the end in that we all want to be like the Savior – oneness in thought and deed. And even though we are all following like “lemmings” we are individuals and want to be perfect like the Savior in our purpose of faith and stewardship. They sat in silence and said “OHHHH like Despicable Me – minions….” Who knows if I got anything across but they were at least thinking and had a comparison for me.

  8. When I was in high school there was a garage band called Hesitant Lemmings composed of students in my school. That is all.

  9. Oh my goodness…I completely forgot about the computer game. I am certain that I still have it tucked away on a 3.5 inch floppy somewhere.
    speaking of lemmings and not knowing what things are….as a very young adult fresh out of the rural northwest, there were a few phrases that “everybody” (meaning teenagers) used, and I did too, because everyone else did. Sadly, I don’t think many of us knew what those words actually meant, and how offensive they were. to me they meant one thing, but to the rest of the world, they meant something else. It did not take long for me to offend some of my knew found friends….just because I was following along with everyone else.

  10. Interesting. My daughters email from her mission last week was “Agents unto Ourselves”. In the worldwide mission conference they changed the mission schedule to reflect this very concept about missionaries being agents to themselves and need more agency in determining their daily schedules. Wish you were my kids teacher.

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