Choosing My Good Part

Choosing Having celebrated a series of little successes as I work on living with the intent to be happy (see How We Choose to Be Happy by Foster and Hicks), I have actually been doing fairly well in the emotional arena as of late.  Additionally, learning that anxiety can be a result of dehydration has made an incredible difference—as long as I drink plenty of water my anxiety levels are mostly minor and often almost non-existent. But a couple of weeks ago, I experienced some small setbacks over several days that, taken altogether, added up to more than the sum of their parts.

It started when my husband and I went to the viewing of a friend who was the absolute embodiment of dignity and elegance. As we spoke to her daughter, my husband made the observation that her mother was “spiritually elegant.” My first thought was “What a wonderful way to be remembered.” My second thought was that perhaps that quality was something I could strive to develop. My third thought was that I am probably too pragmatic to ever be considered elegant. And so my precarious sense of confidence and well-being started to lose its balance.

The next setback came as I was listening to a radio talk show. The hosts were discussing a study regarding how people experience their daily commute. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that people who didn’t get upset about traffic delays or uncourteous drivers were happier. No duh–did they really need a study to figure that out? They also found that those who took mass transportation were much happier with their commute if they talked to the people around them. Well, that isn’t me. I’m the one with her nose in a book or simply staring out of the window. I look forward to traveling by bus or plane because I know I will have an extended opportunity to read or just sit and think without feeling guilty because I’m not doing something more productive. I can’t fold my laundry, cook dinner, or clean my house while I’m on the bus, so I don’t worry about it. The radio discussion made me feel like I just didn’t measure up because I prefer to keep to myself when I’m surrounded by a bunch of strangers.

The final incident occurred while I was looking at an online newsletter I subscribe to and saw an article titled “Today I Learned that I’m Living the Gospel Wrong.” (See igobyari.com) As I read the article, I learned that the author felt that God wasn’t happy with her because she wasn’t bouncing-up-and-down excited about the Gospel. Well, according to that standard, I’m living the Gospel the wrong way, too. In general, I’m not a person who gets I-just-can’t-wait excited about very many things. I envy those who naturally use words like “fabulous” and “awesome” to describe their world, but it just isn’t me. I love the Gospel, but I would describe my emotions regarding it as awe and reverence rather than excitement. But because I’m not part of the isn’t-this-wonderful crowd, I again felt inadequate and, quite frankly, a little inferior.

So there I was—Strike three, you’re out! Bye-bye self-confidence and sense of well-being. Fortunately, at this point the Lord stepped in to save me from myself.

In preparation for Easter, I’ve been reading New Testament scripture passages that chronicle Christ’s life. One of the passages speaks of Mary and Martha who lived in Bethany with their brother Lazarus and hosted the Savior in their home on more than one occasion. Luke 10 recounts the following interaction between Martha and Jesus.

38 Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.
39 And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.
40 But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.
41 And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:
42 But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

 I believe that the one needful thing that Christ referred to was the eternal imperative to feast on the word of God. Christ was lovingly teaching Martha that her concern about an earthly meal was interfering with what was truly important. However, I don’t believe that by pointing out that Mary had chosen that “good” part, that spiritual feast, he was implying that Martha had chosen a “bad” part. Far too often I hear good women criticize themselves because they identify more with Martha than with Mary, and thus feel guilty because they believe they haven’t chosen the “good” part.

As I read that passage of scripture, the Spirit helped me understand that while the needful, or essential, thing is to put God first, it’s not the only choice we must make. Just as there are diverse gifts of the Spirit, there are an unlimited number of other good parts from which we can choose. We do ourselves and others a great disservice by believing that there is only one good way to live the Gospel, only one good way to serve the Lord, only one good way to do good in the world. I realized that I had fallen into the trap of believing that there was only one “good” part, and it wasn’t the part that I had chosen.

Perhaps I won’t ever be spiritually elegant like my friend, but surely there is a place for a spiritual pragmatic like myself. Perhaps I won’t ever make a new friend while I’m riding the bus, but the world needs some of us to be thinkers. Perhaps I won’t ever be effusive about the glories of the Gospel, but though the expression of my Gospel witness might be more subdued, my testimony isn’t any less earnest or profound. The challenge is to find and embrace the good parts that fit oneself.

Maybe being a pragmatic, thinking, somewhat reserved disciple is a pretty good part to choose after all. I know for me, it feels right.

Image Copyright: Konstantin Labunskiy

On the Far Side of Fear

I was complaining recently that my life doesn’t look anything like what I imagined it would. In particular, I moaned about not being able to pursue my passions, even though I couldn’t really define what my passions were. My listener’s response gave me a lot to think about. “Everything you want,” he said, “is on the other side of fear.”

He was right.

river rapidsEver since then I’ve had this picture in my mind. I’m standing on the bank of a river. It’s not very wide, but it is extremely cold and swift—at least that’s my perception. On the far side are things I would like to do and, more importantly, ways I would like to be. The name of the river is Fear, and I’m afraid to ford it. I don’t like to feel fearful and anxious, so most of the time I stay on my side of the river, envying those who don’t particularly like the cold fear either, but cross the river anyway. I want to be more like them.

Not long ago I came across this quote from Aristotle Onassis: “We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds.” So often I think life would be much better without the winds of trials and troubles in our lives. Surely, I say to myself, calm seas must lead to happiness and fulfillment. The problem is, if we are sailing in calm seas, we run the risk of being becalmed. Without the wind to fill our sails, we end up going nowhere. Though the wind might make the seas rough, it is also the thing that helps us progress on our journey.

Framing this quote in terms of my river metaphor, I keep hoping the river will become warm and gentle, lazily meandering through a grassy plain. Then, I tell myself, I will gladly cross the river and do all of the things I want to do and become all of the ways I want to become. But that’s not reality. Reality is that the river will remain swift and frigid, and I must learn to swim in those conditions. But I’m afraid.

I’m reading a book called How We Choose to Be Happy: The 9 Choices of Extremely Happy People by Rick Foster and Greg Hicks. The book is one I’ve read before, but, quite frankly, I’ve never made a concerted effort to implement the choices. I’ve always been afraid to try. What if I can’t do it? What if I can’t learn to make those choices? What if I learn to make those choices and they don’t lead to happiness? In other words, What if I fail? What does that say about me?

The following quote by Gordon B. Hinckley is tacked to the wall above my computer and has prompted me to make the attempt in spite of my fears. He said, “The faith to try leads to direction by the Spirit, and the fruits that flow therefrom are marvelous to behold and experience.” Of course, in my fear of failure mode, the advice leads to self-doubts. What if I try but don’t get direction by the Spirit? What if I don’t see any fruits?

I will admit that until I began writing this post, I felt like I wasn’t receiving any spiritual guidance and that my tree was bare. But if I’m being honest with and about myself, I have to acknowledge that, if not fully grown fruit, I’m beginning to see some buds. The first choice that Foster and Hicks describe is intention; extremely happy people intend to be happy. The assignment at the end of the chapter was to make a list of your most important intentions. I couldn’t come up with any, so, feeling a little bit like a failure already, I skipped it and went to the next chapter. But as I thought about it over a couple of days, I realized I did have some long-term intentions that influence my choices. They aren’t the same kinds of suggestions as those listed in the book, but they are things that resonate with my soul. It’s a beginning, a bud.

And that’s not the only thing I’ve come to understand about myself in the last few days. For a very long time I’ve felt inadequate because I didn’t have any passions—or so I thought. I know from my previous reading of the book that identifying and pursuing your passions is one of the choices extremely happy people make. I’ve been worried about what I was going to do when I got to that chapter. Was it just going to make me feel more like a failure? But yesterday I realized I do have things I am passionate about—learning and teaching. It may seem like a small thing, but I believe that insight came through spiritual direction. Voila! Bud number two.

My dislike of plunging into cold water is both literal as well as metaphorical; I really do hate any activity that is cold and wet. I took ski lessons when I was a teenager and in college, but I was never very good at it. I also learned to water ski, more or less. I was never very good at that either. Now I’m faced with another cold and wet endeavor—crossing that cold, swift river of fear that runs through my mind. I worry that I won’t be very good at that as well, but there is simply no other way of getting to my dreams and aspirations on the far side bank.

There is one water-related memory that gives me hope. My family used to take a yearly vacation to Lake Powell. It was always hot, usually anywhere from 100° to 110° or more during the day. But all we had to do was jump in the lake to cool off. I always hated the jumping in part because I knew how cold the water would feel against my hot skin. For many years I hesitated making that leap off the back of the boat. Eventually, however, I realized that the sooner I got in, the sooner I would cool off. I also figured out that if I jumped in, got out immediately, then jumped right back in, the water would feel warm and comfortable.

I’m hoping that the same principle will apply to my forays into fear. Perhaps if I jump into that icy river, climb back out and then immediately dive back in, maybe it won’t seem as bad the second time around. So far my efforts to incorporate the nine choices of happiness in my life have been mostly just fleeting moments of sticking my toes in the water. But I learned at Lake Powell that gradually walking into the water just made the discomfort last longer. Jumping in all at once would leave me gasping when I reached the surface, but was always better in the long run.

I still have a boat load of fear about immersing myself in the things that I have allowed to keep me from enjoying life, but I’m thinking it might be worth the risk. For one thing, I’m curious. I wonder, what does the view from the far side looks like?

Image courtesy of 123RF  ID: 12151684 (S)

 

 

My Imperfect Best

Not long ago I’d had a couple of really busy days, and I was tired. Not just tired tired, but the kind of tired where all you want to do is sit down and cry. It wasn’t a matter of being sad or upset; I was just plain pooped out.

Unfortunately, when I get that tired I become my own worst enemy. As I sat mindlessly vegetating in front of the TV, all I could think about were the ways I could have done better or been better, about how everyone else would have been able to handle the same things and still have had enough energy to go dancing, about how my best effort just didn’t seem to stack up when measured against my perception of others’ capabilities.

When bedtime rolled around and I knelt to pray, my mind was blank. Oh, I could have rattled off a rote list of things to be grateful for and blessings to seek, but I knew they would be just words, not a prayer—and, either in spite of or because of how tired I was, I wanted to pray, to commune with God.

So as I knelt there, eyes closed with tears trickling through my eyelashes, I said the only thing that came to mind. “Heavenly Father,” I asked, “please accept my imperfect best.” End of story.

I’ve thought a lot about that plea. In a strange way, those words given to me were a tender mercy from the Lord. They reminded me that God doesn’t care that I am imperfect. In fact, in the eternal scheme of things,  I’m supposed to be imperfect at this point in my progression. I’m supposed to be making mistakes so I can learn from them; it’s the way I grow. I’m supposed to need God’s help to get through this earthly existence; it’s the best and easiest way he can teach me to be like him. My best is supposed to be imperfect; it’s a reason to keep striving for improvement.

I think, especially as we get older, we tend to presume that our mortal stage of life somehow equates with where we should be, or at least where we think we should be, in the eternal scheme of things. After all, I’ve been around long enough that surely I have gained some wisdom and perspective. In my mind, I assume I should have life somewhat figured out by now, but I don’t and that makes me feel like a very insufficient human being. But there is a reason God calls us his children. From his vantage point, that’s what we are no matter how long we have been on the earth—children.

I’ve often wondered if our mortal existence is kind of the teen age / young adult phase of our eternal progression. Think about it. We’ve apparently learned enough to leave our heavenly home and take on the responsibility of choosing for ourselves how we want to be and what we want to become. However, like many a teenager, we don’t know as much as we think we do. Consequently, in our immature—at least from an eternal perspective— thought processes we often make impulsive decisions and do dumb things—sometimes really dumb things. We are easily swayed by the opinions of others and value their approval over God’s. Even though God’s offer to help is always extended, we think we can do just fine all by ourselves—and promptly proceed to blindly stumble into ill-advised, sometimes even dangerous situations. In other words, we are imperfect—big time.

Fortunately, God is infinitely long-suffering. He continues to call to us and patiently awaits our response. He eagerly watches for the moment when we figure out that we know next to nothing about life, and he continually pleads with us to come to him to learn the glorious mysteries of eternal being. And through it all he expects and even embraces our imperfection.

We do this as mortals as well. There is something very gratifying to watch our children progress from grace to grace. For example, one of my grandchildren was simply born with a fairly negative outlook on life. It reached a point to where Mom and Dad decided counseling was in order. Over the last year or so we have quietly cheered from the sidelines as we watched this child become happier and more contented with both self and life. I think this is the way God views our imperfections—as beginnings of better things to come.

The wallpaper on my computer desktop is the following quote from Lorenzo Snow: “Do not expect to become perfect at once. If you do so, you will be disappointed. Be better today than you were yesterday, and be better tomorrow than you were today.” To be honest, I can’t say I am a better person today than I was yesterday. Any growth from one day to the next is almost imperceptible, except perhaps to one with divine vision. Instead, I have to reflect on whether or not I am a better person than I was a week ago or a month ago. Sometimes even that lengthened time frame is too short, and I have to compare who I was a year ago with who I am today in order to identify how or whether I am a better person.

blade of grassGod is neither surprised nor disappointed with our imperfections. However, although he is patient with our weaknesses, he expects us to continuously strive to improve and progress beyond our shortcomings. But he doesn’t require us to make these changes independently, for he knows that we cannot fully overcome our imperfection through self-discipline and will power alone. I have a quote from the Talmud stuck to my filing cabinet that I feel illustrates God’s great desire for our growth: “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’” If he sends angels to encourage a blade of grass to grow and fulfill the measure of its creation, how much more must he yearn for his children to do so. Accordingly, he has provided the Atonement which “endows us with those powers necessary to save us from every weakness, every ignorance, and every obstacle that might otherwise hinder or prevent our progress in some way.” (Tad R. Callister, The Infinite Atonement, loc. 787)

A friend once told me she hadn’t given her best because her effort wasn’t perfect. Her way of thinking assumes that perfection is a possible option. It’s not—at least not in this life nor through our own labors. I am confident that God accepts our imperfect best because, even with all its limitedness, it demonstrates our desire to become like him and share in his joyful existence. What loving parent would ask for anything more?

Image copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_simsonne100′> / 123RF Stock Photo</a>