A Small Step

Monday, August 27, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

I’m glad it was Neil Armstrong that first stepped on the moon.  Very few human achievements measure up to leaving earth’s cradle and stepping on another heavenly body.  Lesser accomplishments have prompted outsized pride and boasting.  Momentous occasions are often forgotten by the next news cycle.  As he stepped off the ladder of Eagle, the Apollo 11 lunar module, Armstrong punctuated his singular moment of fame with the simple but powerful description “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” 

Armstrong was a self-described “nerdy engineer”.  He was proud of his profession, but also carefully modest.  It would have been a small step to become overly proud when making history like Armstrong, but instead we find him saying:  “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”  Some say that the original sin of Adam and Eve was pride.  It was just a small step from being God’s stewards to a desire to be like God.  Eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was an evil conceit, the deadly sin of pride.  Along with our original parents, we humans have always been susceptible to this character flaw.  While engineers are often naturally a bit shy and a bit modest, our ability to create new products can lure us into pride.  It is just a small step.  From appropriate pride in one’s accomplishments that acknowledges God’s help as well as the support of those around us, we can too easily stumble into pride in ourselves and over-estimation of our own self-worth.

Avoiding pride does not mean we cannot praise significant accomplishments.  While pride is a vice, encouragement of others is a virtue.  Landing on the moon was an extraordinary triumph that required extraordinary innovation, dedication, teamwork, and courage.  It is gratifying to read the tributes and eulogies for Armstrong and remember the early days of spaceflight.  A sense of wonder, of how small we are, can be a healthy corrective to bravado.  I’m glad it was Neil Armstrong that first stepped on the moon.  He showed us how it was done—with modesty and class.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest