Of Pots, Kettles, Motes and Beams

My mom is a beautiful, intelligent French woman. I love her. She speaks many languages and is very proficient in English and French. However, growing up she would constantly mix up her usage of idioms. Sometimes she would tell us, “Stop pulling my arm!” My friend still recalls the time she ate with us and my dad replied to my mom, “Geese Louise,” My mother confused said, “Why are you calling me Louise?”

But one day my sister and I were truly puzzled when my mother threw out this one to us. “It’s like the cat calling the cattle black.” I knew I had never heard this expression and was unclear of its existence. My sister and I exchanged confused glances. The expression my mom tried to use was, “it’s like the pot calling the kettle black.”

The earliest use of this expression was found in a 1620 translation of Don Quixote. “The Spanish text …reads: Dijo la sartén a la caldera, Quítate allá ojinegra (Said the pan to the pot, get out of there black-eyes). It is identified as a proverb…, functioning as a retort to the person who criticises another of the same defect that he plainly has.” (Wikipedia)

“An alternative modern interpretation, … argues that while the pot is sooty (being placed on a fire), the kettle is shiny (being placed on coals only); hence, when the pot accuses the kettle of being black, it is the pot’s own sooty reflection that it sees: the pot accuses the kettle of a fault that only the pot has, rather than one that they share.” (Wikipedia)

“The point is illustrated by a poem that appeared anonymously in an early issue of St. Nicholas Magazine from 1876:

“Oho!” said the pot to the kettle;
“You are dirty and ugly and black!
Sure no one would think you were metal,
Except when you’re given a crack.”

“Not so! not so!” kettle said to the pot;
“‘Tis your own dirty image you see;
For I am so clean – without blemish or blot –
That your blackness is mirrored in me.”


Jesus also gave a similar lesson when he told us “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? …

“… First cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”2  

Susan Arrington Hill designed a poem about this point entitled, On Motes and Beams.
Why do I pounce on your
tiny mote
hidden in back
of the corner drawer
when the biggest front closet
is bulging—
stuffed with my own
huge supply
of giant beams?
I’m getting a corrective lens
in my eternal glasses.

Why is it so easy to recognize the faults and failures of another and hard to decipher our own flaws? Elder Uchtdorf suggests, “Often we try to avoid looking deeply into our souls and confronting our weaknesses, limitations, and fears. Consequently, when we do examine our lives, we look through the filter of biases, excuses, and stories we tell ourselves in order to justify unworthy thoughts and actions.”

I know that I am no exception to this statement. I have to be brutally honest when I  acknowledge my weakness. It requires humility to admit my fears. It takes quiet reflection that I don’t create. The time and self-awareness that it takes to admit that I am afraid are slow in coming.

Elder Uchtdorf continues, “But being able to see ourselves clearly is essential to our spiritual growth and well-being. If our weaknesses and shortcomings remain obscured in the shadows, then the redeeming power of the Savior cannot heal them and make them strengths. Ironically, our blindness toward our human weaknesses will also make us blind to the divine potential that our Father yearns to nurture within each of us.”

I have uncovered a truth in this parable that has helped me become more aware of my motes and to view others with more kindness. Often the very flaws I criticize in others are the very things that I need to change. The moment I hear myself complaining about another I know it’s almost the very thing I need to fix.

As Wikipedia has said, “The one seeking to remove the impediment in the eye of his brother has the larger impediment in his own eye, suggesting metaphorically that the one who attempts to regulate his brother often displays the greater blindness and hypocrisy.”

I am trying to ask myself the hard questions. I am trying even harder to hear the true answers. But I do know as I listen for the ways I can improve I open myself up to reach the potential that my Father in Heaven has in store for me.



If you copy and paste this link into your browser you will see a dramatization of a woman judging her neighbour’s dirty laundry through an unclean window. It’s a good reminder for everyone.



Of Pots, Kettles, Motes and Beams

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