Sunday, August 22, 2010

Learning to Have Fun

A few months ago the Lord told me I needed a vacation. I’m not a vacation person. The thought of leaving behind all my responsibilities and floating with the breeze on an island beach fills me with absolute horror. But His suggestion (and the comments that have followed me since birth) helped me realize that I was taking life too seriously. Amid the tumult of buying a house, helping siblings prepare for school, serving in a new calling, and working on way too many projects, I think I’m starting to better understand what He meant. This week I had fun.

I could tell you about the house we bought in Orem on Friday – my brother and I will be moving there in a month or two and then we’ll have a housewarming party. I’d probably rave about the 19 peach, apple, plum, pear, apricot, walnut, chestnut, and cherry trees, along with blackberry bushes, grape vines, and the massive hedge of lilacs. Or I could address the massive workload of being an Assistant Executive Secretary in a student ward during turnover time. I definitely have my work cut out for me. But I think I’ll write about something totally different and completely atypical instead. Brace yourselves.

Monday, after getting back from San Diego, I went with my family to Bridal Veil Falls up Provo Canyon. We ate dinner down at the bottom of the falls, and then the rest of the family hiked up while I watched my little brother jump in and out of the freezing water at the bottom. As I watched him and other kids there, I was amazed to see how one little thing affected their attitude. My brother was wearing crocks – shoes made of plastic – and so wasn’t concerned about stepping on rocks. He would have been happy to spend hours jumping in and out of the water. Every other kid took painstaking steps while in the water, focusing more on the rocks and the potential pain than on enjoying themselves. Looking at my own life, I realized that maybe I needed to learn to put work and everything else on hold once in a while, put on my crocks, and jump into the ice cold water… for the sheer fun of it. I had just gotten a call from my boss letting me know that my start day had been moved back, so I had the chance to put it to work.

My own having fun came in a somewhat roundabout manner. When my family researched purchasing passes for our annual trip to the waterpark, we learned of a new 13-month season pass that was good there, for basketball games, baseball games, and two Trafalga mini-theme parks nearby. Since it lasts until Labor Day of next year and was really inexpensive with a coupon code, we bought the passes for everyone. Our trip to the waterpark went in the usual manner – we arrived on a sunny day, storm clouds gathered, lightning struck, and they closed the pools and the rides for almost 2 hours. While we waited and everyone else left the park, I convinced my family to play a game. It’s normally played with bean bags – you toss them around the circle, crossing through the center, always receiving the bag from person A and tossing it to person B. You slowly increase the number of bean bags and try to time your throws correctly while catching the ones you receive. We didn’t have bean bags; my idea was to use single tubes (the massive inflatable ones) instead. Everyone thought I was crazy, but we tried it and, within minutes, were rolling with laughter. It worked really well. We played for 30 minutes before the wind picked up. Then a lifeguard came over and told us we couldn’t throw tubes because the wind was too strong. She mentioned that we actually weren’t supposed to be throwing them anyway, but our game had looked like so much fun that they just wanted to watch. When the park finally opened again, there were no lines for anything. The sunny – lightning – empty park motif has happened every time we’ve gone for the last 10 years. Nice.

Then we went to Trafalga. I wasn’t really too keen on going to a place to play mini-golf and bumper boats, but my siblings and cousins were enthralled. And that’s what mattered. And then I got hooked. On laser tag. They have a laser tag arena (not huge, but not cramped either) where 20 people can play a 15-minute game. The arena is set up well… and so I began playing with family, friends, and complete strangers. And I have a confession to make. I love laser tag. I love ducking beneath a window to shield my shoulder pads or crouching in a corner, head up, watching for flashing red or blue lights. Laser tag meshes the adrenaline rush of team and individual survival with the reality that (unlike paintballs or BB’s or video games) they don’t do anything to you, virtually or physically. There is no violence, blood, pain, death... just a buzzing sound – you’ve been tagged – and a countdown from 3 until you’re ready to go again. A fifteen minute game is long enough to work up a sweat, and as we leave the arena each time, my brother and I were usually the top two scorers. He and I must have inherited some of the stuff that earned our grandfather sharpshooting medals in the military years ago. After playing three games in a row, we stopped to reflect on what had just happened. We bought a 13-month season pass that allows us unlimited entry to a bunch of attractions. The arenas I’ve played at before cost up to $15 a person, per game… and I’ve never even heard of a season pass before. I can imagine meeting friends, having family parties, all revolving around laser tag. I told you I loved laser tag. Now, if they only had a season pass for dates…

Most of you know that I don’t let myself just go and have fun as much as most people. I focus on doing things that will bring me closer to my goals, instead of just doing things for the sheer pleasure of doing them. And I don’t think that I’m going to change that. But I’m learning that I can find ways to use activities I enjoy to accomplish my goals. Laser tag is pretty good exercise. It’s a good way to relax. And I think it sounds like a good date activity, too (as long as you’re on the same team and stay together). Those are all things that are important to me – and that means I have a pretty good excuse to play laser tag.

Each of us needs to enjoy life. Some of us need more fun than others, but we all need to find things to look forward to – things that can be a part of our lives and motivate us to be better people, while helping us to fulfill our goals and dreams. As far as asking for help this week, I’m trying to do missionary work and I’d love your prayers. For my invitation, look at your life and think of something that you love doing… and find ways to incorporate the things you love into your everyday. I’m learning that it’s worth it. Yes, it may take time, or it may mean that you spend a little less time working at your desk. But it will energize you and allow you the opportunity to refresh your soul. I know that God wants us to be happy. Sometimes that means learning to work hard and enjoying the work we do. And sometimes it means finding new ways to enjoy life. Smile. Have a great week. Go out and be missionaries.

I love you all!


Friday, August 20, 2010

Sunburns, Sand Crabs, and Ocean Baptisms

This last week passed in a whirlwind. From job interviews to oceanside baptisms to long car trips through the desert, it's been crazy. And, strangely, something inside me says this is only the calm before the storm.

My family came into town Wednesday. 12 hours later, we arrived in California for my cousin's wedding. Weddings are amazing events in my family. Cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, distant relatives, and family friends drive and fly from all over the world in a massive show of support. Together we got sunburned at the beach, mastered the art of digging for sand crabs, took hundreds of pictures, and spent hours talking until late each night.

Amid the tumult, my little brother was baptized Friday before the wedding dinner. We gathered under a blue canopy and held a short meeting - passersby staring as we sang Primary songs. I gave a talk on the Holy Ghost and then he walked out, wearing white, to be baptized in the Pacific Ocean.

Yesterday, the sealer in the temple related some cogent advice from Church leaders on how to develop eternal, happy relationships. Be kind. Think of others before you think of yourself. Involve the Lord in everything you do. A few moments later, the sealing was over, and I joined the rest of the wedding party outside waiting for the new bride and groom.

Each time I attend a wedding, I wonder, wistfully, how long it will be until mine. I saw a few shooting stars from the Pleiades this week; someday, hopefully, my wish upon a star will come true.

I guess this week's message focuses on the importance of listening to the Lord. No matter where we are or what is happening in our lives, turning to God will give us the strength to move forward. I know that God cares about us. He wants to be actively involved in our lives. Turn to Him, and ask for guidance in the events of your life.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Enroute to Stardom (or someplace)

It's amazing to look back and think that just a few weeks ago I was stressed out beyond thinking, just because I didn't know what was going to happen in the future. Deep down inside, I knew that God was involved in my life; I just hadn't yet caught the vision of what He wanted to accomplish. In my prayers recently I've pled with the Lord to help me be more involved in the work – to find ways to better serve those around me. And so, this week, that is what He did. I think I am just now realizing that He has way more in store for me than I will ever understand.


Monday morning I woke up and logged in to my most recent endeavor – being more involved as a friend and a missionary in the online world. I found new friends, chatted online, commented and posted on blogs, and tried to find ways to lift people in the world around me. Whether or not I had a major impact, I felt like I was doing something worthwhile – making a difference in the world. But you know me. I always try to think bigger. But what could I do to have a bigger impact?


I checked on the music competition I entered – and realized, quickly, that my name wasn't there. There were 16 entrants in the male category; I wasn't even in the top 10. Ouch. I really liked the recording I made (and still do), and so did almost everyone who listened to it. I guess I may have to put the "changing the world through music" plans on a temporary hold – at least for now.


Then I got an email from a guy who had found my blog through my profile on Yeah. Interesting. He mentioned that he was beginning an ambitious blogging project – creating a "Top 100 Blog" – and felt my inspirational writing would fit well in the group. He had already invited a few other people, but felt prompted to go on to, search for "author," bring up my profile, read my blog, and invite me to participate in the project. The Lord works in mysterious ways. There are seven of us working on the blog; we met as a group on Saturday to discuss names, themes, word limits, and everything else cogent to the project. After a long discussion on what topics to address, we decided to each have a day to just write about our lives and the topics that are most important to us. I was immediately voted the Sunday blogger. Since each post will go through two editors before publication, I'll probably write throughout the week and then let the "scheduled post" function take care of Sunday. The launch date (and launch party in Provo) is Saturday, September 18th. More info upcoming on that project as time gets closer.


On the job front, I wrote a follow-up email when I hadn't heard from anyone by Wednesday. I got an email in return; as I had suspected, they were just really busy. I had no clue how busy. My phone died Wednesday night and the next morning I woke up to a message from my future manager, indicating that he only had time to talk between 4 and 7 am that morning. He was doing a car-counting service project for the community. It was 6:40. I pulled his number from the message details and we had a great 20-minute call. He wanted to meet in person, but he's totally booked until this Wednesday. From the tone of our conversation, I'm pretty sure I've got a job. It will probably be crazy busy. Hopefully we can find some time to meet and figure out what my responsibilities will be.


The final piece of "how I can be more involved" news came with a phone call this morning to have an interview at Church. Long story short, I got called to be an Assistant Ward Executive Secretary. For those who aren't familiar, that assignment means that every Sunday is completely booked from 9 to 5 – attending every meeting and being in the next room during every interview. And I thought my Sundays were busy already. But it's a great calling. I'm the assistant, so I'm in charge of scheduling all the interviews for the bishop's counselors. I'm also in charge of the ward website and helping to put together a ward directory for this next semester. The bishop knows that I may not be here long, be he was anxious to give me the calling anyway. Whatever happens, I'm excited for the chance to serve.


Last Sunday night I cried myself to sleep. In my fast, my prayers, and my every thought I asked God to help me reach out to the people around me, to help me lift up the hands that hang down, to help me be a better servant. And, this week, He did. I know that each of us wants to make a difference in our world – to better fill a role that the Lord has in store for us. Maybe it's to be a better mother, a better student, a better missionary, or just a better person. And so we search for it. We pray for guidance and, sometimes, the Lord is silent. And sometimes He lets us know He's listening with a flurry of answers designed specifically for us. My invitation for you this week is to ask the Lord to help you be a better servant. As you do, He'll help you find ways (maybe massive, maybe small) to improve and come closer to Him.


p.s. – I totally forgot to ask for help in this post. I'll open the floodgates. I don't have a girlfriend or anyone that I'm currently dating. I don't think I'll ever write about the difficulties inherent in my relationships. The Lord may have reasons to keep me single now, but eventually I'd like to find someone (1) who I can be attracted to and (2) who is willing to do anything in the quest to be a better person each day. Feel free to send pertinent advice, phone numbers, or whatever.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Helping people improve. Being a missionary.

Sunrise here in Provo is an amazing thing. Hours pass, the sky slowly grows brighter, but the sun stays hidden behind the mountains… threatening to never rise. You wonder if the day will just go on without the sun ever arriving; it gets late enough that you have to move on to other things. And then, in an instant, rays of light stream over the mountains, lighting the sky and bringing full day to the valley below. Life the last few weeks has been sort of like a sunrise in Provo. Everything slowly grows brighter, and then it all falls together. Life is amazing.


I recorded my full studio vocalist demo Monday. It's 4-5 songs (depending on whether I want to make someone listen to opera) that I can send to producers and others. I'm not completely ecstatic about some of the songs I did, but it worked. I'm probably my worst critic. Just email me and ask for a copy of the demos - the help I'm asking this week is that you send them on to whomever you know in the music recording world who might be interested. I'm looking for opportunities to do what's called "studio singing" – recording songs or jingles or whatever that someone else has written who needs to find a voice to sing it. If you don't know anyone, then just keep your eyes and ears open.


Wednesday and Thursday I attended the Professional Career Workshop run by the local LDS Employment Resource Center. I went in skeptical of what they could say; the only advice I had gotten before from the center consisted of line items in my resume and filling out online profiles. But the class, which went from 9-4 both days, was actually a really good program. I was by far the youngest person there – the next youngest was 33 and the average age of the group or experienced professionals looking for work was probably 50. We learned about everything from negotiation to turning negatives in our resumes into positives. We wrote and presented 30-second concise statements introducing who we are, what we've done, and what we can bring to a company. And we practiced, and practiced, and practiced – even doing multiple mock interviews with live feedback from our coach and classmates who videotaped the interview. Just going for the networking side was worthwhile; one of the men already emailed me with a lead for a group of artists looking for children's book writers. If you know anyone looking for work, that might be a good thing to suggest. For me, the timing before my interview Friday couldn't have been better.


Friday I had a job / informational interview with the co-founder of a big consulting firm here in Provo. It had been scheduled to take place at their corporate office, but was changed that day to a meeting at his house – located in a gated community in north Provo. I wasn't sure if a shiny office or someone's private mansion was the more intimidating setting. I had no idea what to expect (Is he going to give me advice? Offer a job? Just talk?), since the interview had come from networking contacts – so I wore a white shirt, tie, and carried a copy of my resume. When I arrived and met the guy, he was smiling, wearing shorts, and barefoot. We went outside to talk next to his pool and I was greeted by a massive dog that promptly began smelling everything from my shoes to my hair, coating me with inch-long gold hair in the process. The interview was sort of shocking; he ran it like a job interview mixed with personal advice on how to move up in the company. He had chosen a potential job for me within 10 minutes of beginning the conversation. I also met his wife, who happens to have written a motivational book about finding symbolism in everyday life (we're exchanging manuscripts). It was over an hour and a half long, and we only stopped talking because he needed to get ready to leave for the Middle East. As he led me back to the front door, he commented that the interview wasn't normal for him, either. "I'm not this positive for every interview. I really enjoyed this," he said… and assured me that I should expect a call from them very soon. Wow.


My thoughts this week, though (outside of stress for jobs and moving into an apartment), are on missionary work. Someone asked me a few days ago how I thought we could have the same blessings that missionaries have in the mission – being guided by the Lord, protected from temptation, amazingly happy. After thinking for a moment, I realized that the answer was actually amazingly simple. It's the same outline for every blessing; in D&C 131 it says "…when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated." You want a blessing? You follow the law that brings that blessing. You want the blessings of being a missionary? You follow the same laws as a missionary. You do what a missionary does.


Applying it to life is where most people I know just give up. They say, "We can't have the blessings of being a missionary since we can't dedicate ourselves to sharing the gospel full-time." Missionaries all over the world share the gospel in different ways. They follow a diligent schedule. They pray for guidance in building the kingdom. They study for themselves and others. They make plans. They reach out and help others. And those things everyone can do. As far as working during the day, some missionaries serve by teaching English classes to government officials. Sounds like an English teacher to me. Others sing in choirs and performances. Others do family history, or answer telephones, or serve in the temple. Others work to help with natural disasters. Missionaries do a lot more than just knock doors and stop people on the street; in reality, every honest job can be approached like a missionary would… and over time the things that each of us does in our lives, every day, become sublime.


Each of us had things that we do during the day. Cleaning a house, talking with others, working in our chosen (or current) career; but no matter what we do, we can be constantly helping others improve. The Lord has all blessings in store for us. We just need to ask for and live worthily to receive them. So that's my invitation this week. Look at your life and make it into missionary work. Everything in your life. Find meaning in the mundane things – folding laundry or counting cash in a drawer… and your attitude will turn you towards the Lord. You'll be more willing to ask Him for help, and He will help you. I know that He loves us, and that, for Him, all things have meaning beyond what we see. Everything He created in life is a symbol to help us think of the divine. As you strive to find that meaning, life will become richer… and you'll have a greater influence for good. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, July 26, 2010

You don't have to be an expert to find meaning in life.

Life this week took some interesting turns. The LDS music workshop I attended last week included an optional recording competition; participants record the competition song in a studio and the top ten singers of each gender perform on an upcoming CD. Tyler Castleton and Jenny Phillips are the judges. Tyler coached me at my recording session and seemed pretty happy with my performance; the contest results will be posted in two weeks. I'll attach an .mp3 file of the song I recorded. There are a few things I would change – the second verse is too loud, for example – but it's pretty good either way. And the experience was a blast.


Since I've begun asking for help here in my letter, I've found that it has become easier to ask people for help and advice in person, as well. The combination has opened floodgates. I'm grateful for everything each of you does in my life. A few of the things on this week's schedule thanks to outside help: A meeting on Friday with the co-founder of a consulting firm in Provo. A studio session to record a professional demo CD on Monday. And a compelling TV program that may change my life (who knows?) on Tuesday night.


Last week I mentioned that I was planning to better understand where my book fit in the publishing world. This week I tried to put my plan to the test. After scouring a Seagull bookstore for books like Watching Cookies in the Oven, I caved in and asked an employee (who had already asked three times if she could help me) if any books like mine existed. Now don't get me wrong – there was an aisle and a half devoted solely to the Inspirational and Self-Help genres there. But, as far as I could see (and the employee agreed on this aspect), every inspirational book was written by someone who had a claim to being a 'popular expert' – holding a major calling in the Church, having a PhD in a relevant topic, teaching in the field for 30 years, or going through some massive perspective-changing experience like cancer or motherhood.


But I didn't write Watching Cookies in the Oven from an expert perspective. It doesn't include proven methods to overcome life's problems or checklists that will instantly turn you into a better person. Why? Because I don't believe you need to be an expert to learn or apply the things I've learned. That's where my book is different. Underlying the monopoly of inspirational books written by BYU professors and Church leaders is the belief that normal people can't have sublime experiences. I believe that we are each individual children of God… and that we can each have sublime experiences each and every day. Do I think that reading my letter and applying the things I suggest will make you happy? No. In some cases the Spirit will inspire me to write about something particularly applicable to your life. But my stories are my own – and while I've learned great things, hopefully my letters inspire you to look at your own life and learn directly from the Lord, not to rely on my 'expertise.' The message of my book is that you don't need to go through cancer, childbirth, and war to become a better person; you just need to go through life. The Lord designs our lives with the perfect mix of experiences to help us turn to Him. For me, that's a lot more compelling than anything an expert could teach me.


The employee at Seagull book suggested that I try to get endorsements from experts to make my book more marketable. The Spirit confirmed then and there that it was a good idea, so my personal feelings on the matter have been quelled. That brings me to my request for help this week: If you know any experts on life, think of them. Otherwise, think of people who might enjoy reading this letter. Forward this letter and a copy of Watching Cookies in the Oven (attached to last week's letter) and ask them to write about their experience reading.


Just a few weeks ago I had no idea where life would take me. This week, I still have no idea. But something is different; I know that the Lord is involved in my life and I feel peace. And I have things to do in the meanwhile. I've wanted to do a demo recording session for years… but never felt it was worth the money or time. Maybe I'll find a job with a consulting firm. Maybe I'll dedicate a huge part of my life to music. Maybe I'll live in Utah or anywhere else in the US. Maybe none of those will happen. Hopefully I'll know in the next few weeks.


When life is hard and I'm waiting for something, it can be hard to focus on anything else. Days seem to slowly creep by… and I wonder if I'm actually accomplishing anything worthwhile. But I'm in charge of my life… and so I should be able to find something to make life worthwhile. When I find things to do, dreams to fulfill, challenges to conquer, then life falls into place. And the waiting happens while I'm engaged in something else more meaningful. It's like a principle I learned at home. When you've lost something, pray for help and then clean the house. If you spend your time cleaning, then when you finish at least you have a clean house. Often you'll find what you're looking for. If you just look, on the other hand, then at the end you may just end up being more frustrated because you couldn't find what you were looking for, and you just wasted hours searching fruitlessly. If you just wait for the Lord to answer your prayers, then life will probably be miserable. So that's my suggestion for this week. Look at your life and the things you are waiting or searching for. Find something else that will help you accomplish your goals and also take your mind off less desirable tasks. And then do it. Be actively involved in shaping the direction of your life as you wait on the Lord to fulfill His promises. You deserve to be happy. Really.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sharing the Fire Within

I attended the LDS Music Industry workshop Saturday. One of the keynote speakers was Michael McLean, who spoke about his musical journey. He had worked for years trying to make it in the music world, and after dozens of defeats and living in abject poverty (according to his wife) he took a class at BYU from a famous professor with the intent of getting final input from someone who knew. If his professor approved, he would keep going. If not, he would go back to school so he could eventually pay the bills. At the end of the class, he asked his professor if he would ever make it in the world of music. "I don't know if you'll make money, Michael – I have no clue how that works. There are musical geniuses who have died paupers and people without talent who are millionaires." "But," he continued, after a faltering pause, "if you stopped making music, for me, it would be a personal loss. I don't know how to explain it… but your music speaks to me." Michael was shocked. That was a life-changing experience that gave him the courage to move forward. He continued his presentation focusing on the importance of sharing our personal message with the world – of being true to the thing that is burning deep inside each of us.

As he spoke, I wondered about my own life. What is the message I have to share with the world? Do I even have one? I've done so many different things and felt pulled in so many different directions. What makes my heart burn? What is it that gets me up in the morning? It's definitely not physics… that's for sure. And, smiling at the irony of the location for this thought, it isn't music, either. I looked around the room full of aspiring label artists and studio musicians and wondered how many other people were realizing that their callings in life weren't directly tied to the musical world. So what is it? And, if it really is my passion, I should be able to see how it has colored everything else I've done in my life. But is there something that ties it all together? It would be totally depressing if I couldn't find anything that continually inspired me. But what could it be? Even though I have a broad array of things I can do well, my passion for everything – dance, music, physics, horticulture, food storage and even changing the world of education waxes and wanes with the tides.


My heart perked when I thought of how much I love to write, but it's hard to imagine writing being the main focus of my life. It had something to do with teaching, performing, writing, and having long conversations with friends and strangers.


As I thought, I realized that I already knew the answer… just that I hadn't recognized how much it truly did affect every part of my life. My passion in life, perhaps one of my few real passions, is changing people's lives – enabling them to make better decisions and achieve higher goals. When I studied physics, it was to understand it so that I could apply it in my own life, and then help others do the same. It was the same for dance, music, and everything else I do. That's the only thing that keeps me going and the guiding force in my life – helping people and organizations move forward… essentially, being a missionary.


I've known that my need to help others is central to many of the things I do. But, simultaneously, I held on to the belief that, since you can't get paid for missionary work, I really can't change the world as an information kiosk attendant, and the Lord steered me away from being a Seminary teacher, I needed to find a career I could enjoy without constantly changing lives. And so I worked in game design, teaching high school, writing, film and stage acting, educational research, food service, technical support, print/media/training development… I've had almost every dream job I ever wanted. And while each one worked partially, the Lord helped me realize they weren't for me.


I think I am finally coming to grips that I probably won't be happy with a career until I find one that matches my greatest passion. I have only one passion, so that probably means I need a career where I am meeting new people and helping them improve their lives, their organizations, and their communities.


My next dream schedule? Work each day at a full-time job in consulting, public speaking, or some field where I can constantly help people improve. Teach a few classes on the side – where I can teach anything – not just physics, where I can inspire students in their pursuit of everything in the world. Write inspirational books and share them with the world – different books for people who are on different places on the pathway to conversion. Sing music and share it with the world. Maybe do occasional inspirational speaking & music firesides and help others live the gospel that way.

Which brings me to my request for help this week. Hopefully, someday, asking for help won't make me feel like a total loser or like I am loading people up with massive burdens. Whatever. I need to get over it. Watching Cookies in the Oven is a 98-page book based on some of the more compelling topics I addressed in the first few years of these letters. I'm trying to better understand what the book needs to be published. Maybe I just need to find the right publisher. Maybe I need to self-publish it. And maybe I need to be famous before anyone would buy it anyway. This week I'm contacting publishers and bookstore owners to better understand the market and where my book fits. I also need wider feedback and I'm trying to put together some music & speaking firesides. I can't just post it here on the Internet, so I'd like you to email me, ask for the manuscript, then read Watching Cookies in the Oven and identify which chapters really speak to you – things you would be excited to hear about at a fireside or other event, plus any other feedback you have. If you know anyone else who might want to read it, send it to them, too. And if there is nothing really compelling as relates to your life, let me know.


Deep inside each of us, there is something burning. It's the fire that pushed Michelangelo to sculpt the David, da Vinci to paint the Mona Lisa, Edison to invent the electric light bulb. It's the motivation that gets us out of bed in the morning and the essence of our dreams. And, I think, it's different for everyone. My invitation to you this week is to look inside your heart. Find the fire that is burning there and make a goal to share that light, in some way, with the world. One of the reasons we are here on the earth is to learn to be happy. If you will turn to the Lord and share the passion He has given you with others, you will become a greater force for good. And as you better understand your unique purpose in life, it becomes easier to live it… easier to share it… easier to find peace and happiness in the world.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The hardest puzzle in the world

Life is great. This week I went to a family reunion, went camping, spent days filling out job applications, and drove for hours and hours. Someday I need to invent a good driving autopilot. But life is still great.

After Church yesterday, we spent some time with extended family. My uncle had a tower / cube puzzle that was labeled “the hardest puzzle in the world.” Some people, he explained, had proven puzzles like it to be physically impossible, and only a few people had ever solved this one. That was enough to turn on my one-track mind. There’s nothing like a challenge.

The game was called “36 cube” and held an array of 36 squares – 6 by 6. Each spot on the array was a tower base that held a tower of a certain height. In each row and column, there was a base that held a tower that was one square tall, two squares tall, all the way to six. And there were six different colors of towers. The goal was to line up the towers on their respective bases so that every row and column had exactly one tower of each color – sort of like a massive Sudoku puzzle.

I threw myself into solving the problem by moving forward as if it were a Sudoku. After about 15 minutes, I had placed 34 of 36 towers, but the last two towers wouldn’t fit. It wasn’t exactly like a Sudoku. So I looked at the puzzle like a Rubix cube – trying to see if I could manipulate the different towers to get the last two to fit. But for every tower I moved, I had to find new spots for two more… then four… then eight. It definitely wasn’t like a Rubix cube. It didn’t look like any puzzle I had solved before.

I realized that I was at a point where I couldn’t go any further, so I paused to reflect on the things I had learned and tried to determine what I needed to understand in order to solve the puzzle. It was somewhat painful when I decided that I needed to start over, but I really wanted to solve it. So I dumped off all the pieces and simply looked at the board itself.

My uncle had mentioned that some of the towers were different from the others – one had the ability to be placed on multiple sizes of bases. That was interesting, but how could it affect the outcome of the puzzle? And how would one tower affect the entire outcome? I found the tower and placed it on a base, then realized that the puzzle would still be impossible. I had just used a 5-height tower on a 6-height base; I didn’t have enough 6-height bases left. Unless, I thought, there was a piece that would reverse the trick somewhere else. It took me ten minutes to find the other part of the trick. But, with those two pieces set, I played the game like a 6x6 Sudoku puzzle and finished a few minutes later. Puzzle solved.

“The hardest puzzle in the world” is actually pretty similar to the challenges we face in life. Life presents us with massive, complex, overwhelming problems. People around us may claim that it’s impossible to solve the issues we face – that it’s not worth trying to keep the commandments, raise a happy family, or change the world – and, in reality, they are partially correct. By ourselves, it is totally and completely impossible to be truly successful in life, just as it’s impossible to solve a 6x6 latin square. We can try and try, and ultimately there is no simple solution. But when the board is rigged in our favor, then the game changes… and it becomes possible. Possible to have a happy family, overcome our trials and temptations, and to be a force for good in the world. It just takes time to figure out how to solve the seemingly impossible problems… and a willingness to, when necessary, scrap everything and start over.

I’ve got two issues I’m currently trying to solve – finding a job (the same as last week), and determining the next step with a book I’m trying to publish. As far as the first one, thanks for the advice and leads so far. I’m including a copy of my resume attached to this week’s letter. With my book, it’s based on the letters I’ve written over the last few years – Watching Cookies in the Oven. I’m not sure if I just need to find the right publisher, or if it needs to be re-written in some way, or if I need to wait, or if I need to self-publish it… This week I’m planning to talk with some bookstore owners and maybe contact my publisher to see if they can give me some advice. I’ll send a copy of my current manuscript next week; in the meantime, I’d love your thoughts or advice.

Life is truly amazing. You look at it and it seems overwhelming and impossible. And then the Lord, through family, friends, or divine revelation, shows you how you can make the impossible possible. I know that God lives and that He loves us. He gave us this life so that we could solve the hardest things – to find the answers to the impossible questions. My invitation for you this week is to do the seemingly impossible. Look at your life, your work, or your family and identify something that you want to change. Something that seems impossible, challenging, or complex. Turn to the Lord and ask for help… and I know that He will bless you and help you move forward on the path to the best solution. Will it take work? Definitely. Will it be hard? Of course. Might it take a long, long time to figure out? Yes. But it is possible. Then go share the solution with the world. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Progressions in Life

When I was little, I tried to follow the ‘leave no trace’ camping motto of the Boy Scouts. But I mistakenly applied it to the wrong facet of life – social relationships. I was successful, bright, and inquisitive, but I thought that very few people wanted to be my friend. So my goal was to move into and out of people’s lives without leaving a trace. In most situations, leaving no trace wasn’t really possible. And even when it was possible, it wasn’t the right decision. There are countless things I wish I could change about that time. After years of struggling, the Lord helped me lift my sights and switched my relationships motto to reflect (interestingly) the other, newer Boy Scout camping motto – ‘leave each person (campsite) better than you found him.’ In the years since, that has been my goal. It drives everything I do, from choosing a career to writing this letter. And it translates directly into missionary work – helping others to come unto Christ and improve their choices in life. That’s my goal in life – to be a lifelong missionary. With that goal in mind, I thought I had all the pieces put together.

But there is still a piece missing. And this piece, I have just realized, is so important that my eternal progression depends on its successful implementation.

This is hard. I’m trying to articulate, and change, something that has been a part of my life for longer than I can remember, and I’m having trouble pinpointing exactly what it is and how to describe it. It’s the reason that I don’t like answering phones or calling people I haven’t met. It’s the feeling that sometimes makes my stomach drop as I knock on a stranger’s door or even when I push “Send” on this letter. And, at its core, it’s the motivation to not ask for help in my life when I need it even though others are willing and anxious to help me. It’s like trying to put myself on a pedestal – trying to help others solve their problems but never letting them help me solve mine. You can even see it in how I write this letter. I talk about a problem or experience that I’ve had, how I turned to the Lord to solve it, and what you can do to relate it to your life. And there is nothing wrong with that; turning to the Lord to resolve my problems and achieve my goals has taught me important lessons that shape how I view the world today. But the issue is still there. I write Ensign articles instead of letters. There isn’t really a compelling reason to write back, because there are no questions, no problems to solve, no asking for advice. I invite others to be a part of my life and then they find the only open spots are for spectators on the stands. Maybe it’s a form of pride, or an internalized belief that I should be able to handle my own life by myself. I think that sounds pretty accurate. Inside my head, I believe that if I can’t do it by myself, or accomplish it through prayer and fasting, then maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. Other people just don’t factor into the equation. For whatever reason, I still hold to a piece of the ‘leave no trace’ mentality. I don’t believe others really want to be involved in the sticky affairs of my life; they have problems of their own and they don’t want or need to worry about mine. They can’t really help me, anyway and, even if they could, they would rather see me optimistic, happy, and shining on a pedestal, right?

Deep down, I know that is completely wrong. At least now I do. Other people do factor into the equation. People want to be involved in my life. Especially when I face sticky problems, they want to be more than just spectators on the stands. My greatest passion in life is mentoring others, helping them overcome problems, and enabling them to achieve their goals. My family and friends share that passion. And I can’t be truly successful in life, become my best self, or achieve my goals without the help of others.

And so here’s the commitment that I’m making… and another part of my heart that I’ll wear on my sleeve. Starting today, the pedestal is gone. Wow. That was hard. I think it will be hard to implement. To me, that means that my beliefs are changing. I no longer believe that I can be totally self-sufficient; instead, I realize that people are an essential part of my life. And, because of that, I need to involve them more in every aspect. My first change: I’ll add another part to this letter each week to make it more like a letter and less like an article – in addition to sharing something I’ve learned, I’ll ask for advice or help on something in my life. I could write about how I don’t want to impose on your life or give you more to worry about, but that would totally defeat the purpose. I need to trust you to make your own decisions. So here it is. The biggest issue I’m facing right now is trying to find a new job. I think I want to find one in the organizational consulting field – maybe working as a lower-level consultant – helping businesses and organizations become more effective and better meet their goals. I just finished updating my resume. The job could be anywhere; location isn’t an issue. Wow. This next part feels a whole lot harder than it should. Who do you know who could help me find a job in that field? Or what advice would you give me?

I think it’s interesting how the Lord guides us individually to do the hardest things for us personally. I started out as a total child hermit, desiring nothing else than to be completely alone without influencing others. I progressed to want to be a missionary – to reach out and change others’ lives and bring them closer to Christ. And, finally (though there is probably another step… and another… that I just don’t see yet), I realize that I need to involve others in my own life. It still terrifies me. But it’s happening. I’m changing and becoming a better person. It has definitely taken me long enough. Each of us has personal progressions in life when we are guided by the Lord. He invites us to change who we are so that we can come closer to Him. And, the most amazing part – He enables us to change. We can change our natures, become new people, and someday, along with the people around us, overcome each of the obstacles that we face. My invitation for you is to turn to the Lord and ask Him for the next step – the next progression in your own life. Turn to Him, and turn to the people around you, and you’ll be blessed. You’ll see your own life change. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Finding direction

Life is good. For some reason, though, this letter has been incredibly difficult to write. Usually, after thinking or writing for a few hours, a certain topic feels right to me each week and I go with it. But I sat down last night and tried to start… only to spend hours staring at the screen with absolutely nothing to show for it. Nothing at all. I tried free writing, where I write everything that comes to my mind, but I ran out of thoughts within a few lines. I tried writing about my experiences, but that didn’t work either. I just sat there… and nothing happened. This has never happened to me; I’ve never felt such a complete lack of direction in my writing. Almost every other week, the topic I should choose is highlighted in my mind and won’t go away until I’ve written about it. But this week I feel totally and completely without direction.

Writing wasn’t working, so I tried taking a nap. I’ve been traveling for the last few days, so maybe my mind needed a rest. But when I woke up half an hour later, my mind made even less sense. I tried talking with family, reading the scriptures, playing the piano, but nothing worked. I finally went to sleep around midnight with less than 200 words written – most of them totally meaningless.

I woke up this morning before 5:00, saw the sun rising, and realized that I needed to write my letter anyway – even if I had no direction. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve done plenty of uplifting and compelling things this week. I flew to Chicago to spend a few weeks with my family on Tuesday. Since then, I’ve driven to Ohio to visit grandparents, taught a friend of my cousins how to swim, spent time with aunts and uncles, driven home in a pounding thunderstorm, attended Church in Chicago, and tried to organize the next steps in my life. But each of those felt like the wrong topic… and the right topic was not readily at hand. So, after struggling for hours, I just started writing about this experience. Midway through the first paragraph, I felt the familiar prompting that always comes when I finally find the right topic for my letter. With that feeling, the letter suddenly unfolded in my mind. I saw parallels to my life and what the Lord was trying to teach me… and realized how I could share that here.

My experience writing this letter is just like my current experience choosing a direction in my life. When I look at the problem at the beginning, it looks like I am on my own – that I’ll have to make the decision myself. I feel totally lost. I try to move in a dozen different directions, but each one feels wrong. And there is no indication that the right way will appear anytime soon. So I flounder. Just as I floundered in beginning this letter. In my mind, I wish that the Lord would just reveal the right way to go. He’s done it before, and that would be so much simpler and faster. I know when He is speaking to me; I’ve heard His voice and I’m used to receiving direction, then acting on it. But, instead, He takes the time to help me learn a vital principle in my life through being silent. As the deadline approaches, I realize that I need to act, with or without direction from the Heavens. I don’t know which direction to go. But that doesn’t mean that I can just stop or forget the commitments that I’ve made. So I move forward, praying that the Lord will help me to do my best. And as I do, He begins to speak to me… and I realize that I have been guided all along.

When I began writing this letter, I felt like I was completely on my own. The only thing I had was a list of topics that were not the right ones. I thought I would have to move forward without the help of the Lord. But, in reality, the Lord was helping me – in the same way that He has helped me before. I have a powerful experience and He teaches me principles of the gospel that I can write. The experience just happened to be being lost. My experience this morning will probably be an exact parallel to finding a direction in my life. I’ve felt totally lost and completely alone. The only thing I have is a list of directions that haven’t worked. But the hope inherent in this parallel is that once I finally choose a direction on my own and move forward, I’ll be able to see how the Lord guided me towards that choice all along.

Each of us hits times in life when we wonder what to do and which way to turn. We know that the Lord can guide us, so we turn to Him. But He is silent. Sometimes His silence means we’re not ready for the answers we seek. But sometimes that same silence is accompanied with a sense of urgency, leaving us trapped in the confusing dichotomy of “Wait for my signal. Act now.” It seems impossible to do both. But there is no dichotomy. The Lord is encouraging us, at least for the time at hand, to make our own decisions and to move forward with faith. I think that those times are the hardest (which means I will probably be doomed/blessed to experience them often throughout my life), but they are still surmountable. And He will bless us if we do our best and put our faith in Him. And we will succeed in whatever our endeavor may be.

So that is my invitation to you. Look at your life, and the things with which you’re struggling. Ask the Lord for guidance. If He gives you clear direction, follow it. It not, press forward with faith. As you do, He will guide you even though you cannot yet see His hand. Everything will work out for the best. I know that God loves us and wants to help us learn to live happy, meaningful, successful lives. Press forward with faith, and then go share your faith with the world. Go out and be missionaries!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Life is amazing.

Over the past weeks I’ve gotten sporadic requests to make my letters more optimistic and uplifting. Normally I’m a pretty upbeat person, so the comments hit me as strange. Then I looked inside myself to better understand what was happening… and I realized how depressed I truly was. I reread my letters and confirmed what others had said – they could be more uplifting. And so I had some choices to make.

When I first started writing each week, there were times when I whitewashed positivism into my letters. I wanted to be a shining, stalwart example of optimism, and I thought the effect would dim if anyone knew that I sometimes struggled in life. I didn’t want to burden anyone reading my letters with more problems than they already had. Then I went to an author’s conference where a presenter spoke about the need for imperfect protagonists in LDS literature. She talked about how readers develop relationships based on how well they relate to individual characters. It was exactly opposite what I had originally thought; instead of needing only perfect or one-sided role models, people relate more easily to those who are authentically like them – imperfect, struggling, but trying to move forward in life. As she spoke, I saw immediate parallels to my weekly letter. It made sense. After pondering for a few weeks, I made the jump from trying to be on a pedestal to simply sharing about my life. I decided that my letters would be reflections of my reality. And, as time has passed, I’ve seen that being real has sometimes affected more lives (if you count email replies as affecting lives) than simply saying life is good.

But depressing letters, while they may be good sometimes, get depressing if you read them week after week. So, in addressing my optimism problem, if I wanted to be honest, I had two choices. I could either continue to write depressing letters or change my life. I decided to change my life. And the results are crazy. Who would have thought? I quit my job, have no one to date, have no car (since mine died for the umpteenth time), and can’t find a clear direction in life. And yet life is amazing. Really. For the first time in months I feel like I am going in the right direction, even though I don’t know what direction that is. Life is suddenly more meaningful and more fulfilling. I walk outside and find peace in sweeping a dirt pathway under the rose arbor. I swim with cousins and teach them 14 different ways to splash, then laugh as they forget all but one. I do pushups while listening to talks from General Conference and everything just seems to fall into place. It will all work out. Life is amazing.

Of course, there are still downsides. Wednesday was my last day at work, and while it was the right decision to leave, leaving was hard. Today was my last day in my most recent ward. I was here for 5 or 6 weeks – long enough to give a talk (that happened today) and only begin to make friends. But I’ve decided to look at life right now as an adventure waiting to unfold… instead of a horror story where awful things wait just around the corner. Again, life is amazing.

Since Wednesday, I’ve been trying to determine what type of projects to work on in the short term – while I’m with family for the next month and looking for a new job. I also need to at least try to make some long-term plans. So I spent Thursday and Friday beginning to organize all the potential directions I could go in life. I like to create massive bulleted lists for projects like this; each bullet covers a different topic. I started listing the names and status of every project I’ve begun in the last three years, including what would need to happen next to move them along. There are unfinished novels and polished manuscripts, ways to change the world or simply become a better person, passing fancies and lifelong dreams. After hours of outlining unfinished projects I felt better, but I wasn’t much closer to determining a good direction for the short or long term. I think I may work on some of my books again. We’ll see what happens.

Life is amazing. But it doesn’t always seem to be. Each of us faces struggles in life. Sometimes the key to realizing life’s beauty is in simply changing our attitude – looking at life through a different lens. And sometimes the key is changing our lives. Ultimately, both will be required. We need to have an optimistic perspective to lift our sights towards Heaven. But we also need to change our lives so that we can actually get there someday. I know that it’s possible. It will probably be the hardest thing we ever do. But it’s possible… and it’s worth it.

I know that God lives, and that He loves us. Each of our lives is uniquely designed to enable us to be happy – to come closer to Him. If you think that life is amazing, and your actions align with what is good, then you’re probably on the right track. If not, then I invite you to make a change. Maybe you just need to wear rose-colored glasses so that you can see the world for it truly is. Maybe you need to make changes so that you can find more meaning in life. Maybe some of both. But as you do, I promise that the Lord will bless you. It will work, and you will come closer to Him. Then go share it with the world. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Navigating the Crossroads in Life

Nutritional yeast can be used as a cheese substitute in some vegan recipes. It tastes sort of like Swiss cheese in some recipes. That is a complete tangent to the rest of my letter, but I thought it was interesting nonetheless.

On Tuesday I decided to quit my job at the MTC. I haven’t felt very useful in a while, and the cultural change that would need to happen to address the issue is probably not in the immediate future. The decision came with so much peace that I finally realized how much work has been taking a toll on my life. It was probably the main contributor to my distress. My last day is this Wednesday, since the MTC doesn’t follow a two-week notice program – all positions are at-will. There are tons of things I’ll miss about my job – the physical perks like a parking pass or being able to use the library and other BYU facilities were nice, but I’ll miss the people and the environment most. My bosses, coworkers, people I’ve met in other departments, and the missionaries… I’ll miss dressing up in a white shirt and tie to go to work each day, wearing a white nametag, and having doctrinal discussions as part of a day’s work.

The only potential problem is that I have no idea where I’m going next in the workplace. I know that quitting, now, is the right decision… but I’m not ‘moving on’ to a bigger and better job (at least that I can see). Which means that I am dealing with a new kind of stress – the stress that comes from having faith and moving forward without being able to see the end from the beginning. And deciding to quit work was only the beginning.

Wednesday I started wondering what to do right after I finished my job. Should I scramble to find another one? Or work methodically so that all the pieces can fall into place? Or do something else entirely? I started identifying my obligations, and realized that they had been slowly disappearing. Grandma died last fall: I don’t have anyone to take care of here in Utah. I’m not in an apartment: I have no financial obligations here. My teaching job ended with the school year, and I’m leaving the MTC: I have no work obligations. I’ve moved wards so many times in the recent past that I don’t have any assignments at all except speaking this next Sunday: I have no Church obligations. The only sticky issue was dating – I’ve been dating a girl here. But that unstuck itself by Saturday. Saturday the girl I’ve been dating told me she had fallen in love with someone else. And that, along with jobs, housing, and everything else, has officially erased all of my obligations that tie me here to Utah at present… which makes me free to go wherever or do whatever. Or just lost.

I live by my responsibilities. One of my life mottos is to make commitments higher than I can reach, then ask for divine help and stretch to reach them every day. I wish I could see into the future – to see what the next step entails in my life – and then to move forward to take it. But I’ve learned that one of the traits the Lord wants to teach me is faith. Especially in uncertainty. I know that God is involved in my life, that He loves me, and that I’m doing the right things. That means that I can have faith – faith that He will guide me and help me to find whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing next. Some days I try to convince myself that I’m on an exciting adventure to discover another facet to my purpose in life. In reality, I feel like I’m walking through a mist of darkness… holding a hand of someone I can’t see. When I think about the darkness, I feel lost. But when I close my eyes, block out the fear, and just follow, I know that everything will be for my good. It makes me think of a dance. I know all the steps. I just need to listen, feel, and follow.

For the immediate future, I’m planning to go to Chicago for a few weeks. It has been years since I spent more than a few days at home with my family. And since I have lots of little brothers and sisters, I want to be more involved in their lives than a letter and the occasional phone call. It will also give me a buffer zone while I discover the next step in my life. Potential directions for that life? Right now I’m mostly lost, in everything from girls to work to living. But that doesn’t mean I should just pull over to the side of the road and stop. The Lord is willing to guide me most when I make my own decisions and go for them, and then listen to the course corrections that He gives me. You can’t steer a parked car. And so this is the direction I’m thinking. For work: one of my passions is making things better… so the two possible directions I have are (1) making people better – teaching seminars on personal skills, being a motivational speaker, or something similar, and (2) making organizations better – business consulting or something similar. Each of those fits the second criterion I have – I want to be involved in a profession that is constantly changing, whether working on new projects or with new people. That way I can use and develop different skills as time goes on. For dating: um… just going on dates. My only stipulation on that aspect: I’m looking for someone who values applying correct principles above all else – someone who is anxious to change everything in her life so that it fits with the things she learns that are true. Instead of the usual response of, “I could never do that,” to hard things, I want to find someone who says, “I can do that. It will be hard, but I can do it.”

That’s what I’m trying to say to myself. I can do this. It will be hard, but I can do it. Suddenly I see an interesting parallel in my life to what is happening now. Since I was little, I have always easily gotten lost – geographically. I can look at a map, choose my course, and go in exactly the wrong direction. And that’s what I did for years and years. In the beginning, I was really frustrated with myself. I’m a smart kid – I should be able to tell directions from a map. And if you quizzed me on the directions, I could give them back to you verbatim. But I still got lost. As time went on, I realized that getting lost wasn’t such a bad thing. It was still somewhat unnerving, but I always found myself eventually… and once I got lost in an environment, I rarely got lost there again. The most important thing – when I was lost and trying to find my way, I turned to the Lord and followed Him. There have been so many times when I’ve been driving and the Lord has been the only way that I arrived to my destination. Turn left here. Turn right here. Because I don’t know exactly where I am going, I am more willing to follow the promptings that come from Him. It’s the same thing in my life. For most of my life, I’ve tried to map out my course and follow it exactly. I’ve always felt uneasy at the crossroads; I’m afraid of making the wrong decisions and then scarring my life for eternity. And I get lost, often. I guess the Lord knows me best, then, when He simply asks me to follow Him. In that respect, being surrounded by the darkness of uncertainty is a blessing. I can’t see that there are 50 different ways to turn at this intersection… I only know that the Lord wants me to follow Him. I can’t see the waves that are crashing all around me if I’m walking on the water; I can’t see the perils to my right and to my left as I walk along the mountainside. But as long as I move forward in faith, following the way I know to be right, it will all work out for the best.

Each of us approaches the crossroads of life differently. Sometimes we have it mapped out for as far as the mind can reach, and when we arrive, it is as simple as putting those decisions into place. Other times, the Lord has higher roads for us to follow… and though we feel lost, He is willing to guide us to our destination. In that respect, it’s ok to be lost… as long as we know which way to go right now. I know that He is watching us. He is willing to give us guidance in the very moment that we need it – sort of like the GPS system that helps me not get lost most of the time. And if we turn to Him, He will guide us. Your invitation this week? Map out your life. Move forward. And turn to the Lord when He calls. Life is amazing – go out and be missionaries!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

What more should I be doing?

When I read a compelling book. When I listen to an inspiring story of how a life was changed. When I sing in a recording studio. When I teach someone who truly wants to learn. When I write this letter. When I perform in a choir. When I speak or sing or act in front of people. When I write poetry. When I sit outside and watch the sky. When I walk in the rain. When I listen to the wind. When I pray. When I study the scriptures and let them enter my heart. When I worship in the temple. When I learn things I can use and teach others. When I hold a sleeping child. When I sing along with the radio. When I play the piano. When I garden or organize food storage. When I make healthy food to share. When I just talk with the people around me…

I feel at home.

Again I’m trying to find it. “It” being the pathway that will enable me to feel uplifted, inspired, and motivated each moment in my life. Specifically, I want to know what I can do to influence the world to be a better place, how I can be a part of the beauty that surrounds me. The search, as usual, follows a familiar pattern. It starts with seeing or hearing or experiencing something beautiful… and then is followed by the thought, “So, what more should I doing?” As soon as I finish reading an inspiring book, recording a song, or teaching people around me, I wonder what more I should be doing to change the world. This week was the last week of a class I taught. I recorded a song for a friend. And I don’t feel particularly useful at work. So there was plenty of motivation to think about how to be more useful.

I can postpone the question “How am I accomplishing my goals?” if I think of the things I just finished doing (and claim that I am on a temporary vacation), but postponing it when I know I need to address it is never worthwhile. One day was too long. Friday morning I woke up and my unanswered question had spawned a much-too-familiar feeling – absolute dejection. It’s a suffocating feeling that fills me with dread… as if everything worthwhile in the world is being wasted, and I can’t stop it, and it’s my fault. The thoughts in my head tried to convince me that I would never be worthwhile, my dreams would never come true, and I would never have a family or find a profession I could truly enjoy. All I wanted to do was roll up into a ball and cry. Not really the best way to start out your day.

Over the years, I’ve learned that everything in my life is designed to help me move forward. For whatever reason, whether it comes from being too idealistic, making way too many mistakes in life, chemical imbalances in my brain, or whatever, some days I wake up with a feeling that saps my strength and devours my will. It, too, helps me move forward. Either that or be crushed.

Life has helped me develop a strong sense of independence. On the good side, I’ve never had to rely on others for my sense of worth. If I’m happy, the world united can’t pull me down. On the flip side, if I am struggling and everyone in the world lines up to tell me I’m worthwhile… it might not help. Why? In both cases, no one completely understands me or knows who I am. While we can get close, it’s impossible for another person to fully understand your deepest thoughts, your past, your hopes and fears and dreams. And so the only person who can tell me I’m worthwhile is me… and, since He knows me completely, my God.

When I relied on others for self-esteem, my esteem required two things – (1) a belief that others understood me (the level of understanding required depended on the level of my independence) and could make accurate judgments of who I was and (2) their judgment (whether fan mail or heartfelt thanks) that I was doing something good. Regaining self-esteem from God requires those same steps. First, I need to have a knowledge of God – that He is, that He knows me, that He loves me, and that He is actively involved in my life. Second, I need to know that what I am doing in my life, right now, is in accordance with His will. Over the years, as my relationship with Him has matured, my knowledge of God has become more sure. Today, I know that God is. I know that He knows me completely, that He loves me, and that He has always been and will always be actively involved in my life. And so the question that I asked Friday morning was, “Am I doing what I should be doing? Am I on the right path?”

Understanding those steps and finding those questions was not easy. There have been times in my life when, for weeks at a time, I wondered if I would ever feel worthwhile. It’s easy to be confident, assertive, and everything else around other people… but inside I felt like I was dying. I would play the piano, listen to music, give service, exercise, eat healthily, talk with friends, spend time with family, study, date, read the scriptures, worship in the temple, and work on a hundred different projects at once – just so that I had no time to think about myself. And then I would go home and cry. Finally I realized that the only way to re-find myself was turning to God, and I spent the weeks engaged in prayer, studying the scriptures, fasting, and anything else to feel worthwhile.

Thankfully, the process that once took weeks to complete has shortened. I know that God knows me, loves me, and is involved in my life. And as soon as I asked if my actions were in line with His will on Friday morning, He answered. I’m a good kid. My heart is in the right place, and I’m not doing anything absolutely terrible right now. I’m doing a lot of good things and making a difference in the world. I’m worthwhile. Within a few minutes I was ready to move forward. But there was one last part of the response. I can do better – much better. And that leads me to the first question I asked in this letter – “What more should I be doing?”

Am I any closer to knowing the answer? I still have no clue what I’ll be doing if I ever grow up. Maybe a public speaker. Maybe a tour guide. Maybe a studio musician. I don’t even know what kind of job I’m looking for to replace the one I have at the Missionary Training Center. I’ll spend a few hours tonight thinking about that. But I do know one thing – if I put the Lord first in my life, everything else will fall into place or disappear. And that’s good enough.

Hopefully everyone doesn’t understand what it means to wake up one day completely devoid of self-esteem. But we all struggle in life. We don’t know if our dreams will come true. We should work for our own success and be optimistic. But when the odds seem stacked against us and we lose our vision, I know the Lord is still at our side. And having faith in Him – faith that He will fulfill His promises – can help us overcome anything in our way. I invite you to build your own faith. Ask the same questions I have. He answered me; He will answer you. And once you know that God is, that He loves you, that He is involved in your life, and that your life is in accordance with His will, then nothing else matters. Go share the knowledge with the world – go out and be missionaries!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Finding purpose in the past... and moving forward

This week was still rough… but I had a better perspective. So it wasn’t nearly as bad as last week. Monday the Lord answered my prayers for a massive storm. I had prayed last Thursday for a storm… and, in my mind, asked for one big enough that the leaves and perhaps branches would fall of the trees. I was envisioning the massive windy thunderstorms of the Midwest – I feel safer and more loved in the middle of a thunderstorm than almost anywhere else. I know it’s strange to you. But not to me. It had rained the days prior, and leaves had fallen off of some of the trees, but on Monday we had a massive, wet snowstorm. Inches of snow piled up on the roads, cars, trees, and buildings. And, as I drove into Provo, I saw and heard branches cracking and breaking – falling off of trees that, the day before, had looked amazing. Road cleanup crews had truck beds full of tree branches… and there were definitely plenty of leaves that had been stripped from the trees as well. As I looked around me, I felt a wave of awe. The Lord had answered my prayer. Looking back, I’m not sure if the Lord told me what to pray for, or if He simply answered the desires of my heart. I’m not sure that there is much of a difference. Either way, I knew that He loved me and was willing to show it.

The storm wasn’t without its down spots, though. Along with breaking thousands of tree branches, the thick slush clogged the drain outside our storage unit. I hadn’t been there for weeks, but went on Monday to search for a library book. As I entered, my heart sank in the half inch of water that lay on the ground. Everything was sopping wet. I just left. The reason why I put my stuff in a storage unit was to keep it safe and ensure that I would never have to move it until I found a more permanent home for it. Thankfully, when I came back Tuesday, most of the water was dried up (whether from the company or draining or evaporation I don’t know). I pulled out my sopping library books and returned them to the library. Thankfully BYU has a book restoration department.

The rest of the week was up and down. Monday I recorded a song with a friend from the MTC; it’s based on a talk that Elder Holland gave in General Conference and he’d like to give it to Elder Holland next month. We had recorded it once as a gospel/country song and the feedback from others was to make it more like a hymn. It sounds much more like a hymn now. Wednesday I picked up my car – the coolant thermostat, which activates the radiator fans, had gone out. But, later that day, the “Service Engine Soon” light came back on. I got the code checked – “System too lean.” It’s either a broken oxygen sensor, a clogged fuel filter, or something else. I’m going to try to replace the mass air flow sensor since that seems to be a problem with my car from online forums… and since right now my car won’t even start. And I don’t feel very useful at work. My bosses like having me in the office so that if something goes wrong or comes up, I can do it. One of them called me a ‘security blanket’ for the team. That’s sort of how I feel – when you’re cold, I’m really good at fixing the problem. Otherwise, I have very little to do that seems meaningful.

And then Sunday rolled around, with Church, choir, and the Lord yet again helping me to feel His love. I don’t know how to accurately express the feelings I have right now. Maybe a mix of awe, frustration, sorrow, faith, joy, and peace. Driving home I watched the sun go down along the mountains… and it was beautiful. I knew that God loved me. It was one of those moments where I remembered that I am a child of God – and that God created this world to enable me to come closer to Him. But it went further. I looked out the window and wondered if I needed to change my job so that I could spend more time outside among God’s creations. Should I travel to the far reaches of the earth to see the amazing things created by men and by God? Or should I stay close to home and try to recreate the beauty I see to share with others? But how could I ever create something beautiful when compared to the stars, the mountains, the sunrise, or the sunset?

I probably won’t become a park ranger, a landscape photographer, a geologist, or a hiking guide. But, nonetheless, the experience, as most do, pushed me to wonder what I could do better. Ultimately, most of my spiritual experiences lead back to the same prayer – the prayer that has been mine for longer than I can remember. What should I be doing in life? Am I going in the right direction? And, if not, which direction should I go? Sometimes I can already see the Lord’s hand actively in my life. I can see how the people around me, or the things I am doing, will help further His work in some way. But, most days, I look at the wealth of things He has given me and wonder. What on earth (literally) am I supposed to be doing here? A dozen BYU students were named National Science Foundation fellows shortly after graduation. Had I followed the route to physics research, that could have been me. Or so many other things. I just want to be doing the best things I can – not just the good things, but the best ones. But what are the best things in my life?

I know the answer to my question. The Lord has answered it at least a gazillion times – in my patriarchal blessing, in dreams, in the temple, and in conversations with complete strangers. A central reason to why I have my talents, my knowledge, my trials, and why I’ve been placed here at this time, is so that I can be a missionary. Every experience, every talent, every circumstance prepares and enables me to be a better missionary. And that’s the key to finding my purpose in life. Whether in my family as a father (someday), in the Church, or in the world, that’s where my happiness lies – in serving others, sharing the principles of the gospel with them, and helping them come unto Christ.

So I guess the prayer I pray isn’t really “what should I be doing?” – it’s “how should I be doing it?” And I know the answer to that one, too… Follow the guidance of the Spirit. That’s how you best do missionary work, how you are best able to meet the needs of others. That is the crazy frustrating part. I sometimes wish there were a formula I could follow to better meet my purpose in life and be a better missionary – something concrete so that I could chart my progress and work on its development. That’s actually probably why the Lord has me working at the MTC right now. We’re writing a curriculum to help missionaries be better missionaries, and I see parallels in my life and the things I need to do. I have personal experience wrestling with it on a day-to-day basis. Yes, there are some things that will work for some people in missionary work – hence why I write, sing… but, in most cases, you have to rely on the Spirit and follow its promptings to meet the needs of the people around you. Some days I wish my sole purpose in life consisted in accounting.

I guess it ends up being a prayer for faith – faith that the Lord will help me to accomplish His will, faith that He will help me know His will, faith to move forward. And so, dear Lord, help me have faith.

I’m not really sure if my life and struggles are normal. I guess no one is really normal – we are each different. Each of us has a personal relationship with our Father in Heaven… and He has designed life such that we can come closer to Him. And as we come closer to Him, He helps us realize and fulfill our purposes in life. This week, amid the stress of everyday life, the festivities of Memorial Day, working in the garden, and preparing for summer, I invite you to take time to remember the blessings the Lord has given you and to speak with Him. There is no formula that will tell you what is most important in life – but the Lord will tell you (at least, partially) if you ask Him. Go out and be missionaries!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Rough roads... with the Lord at my side

The Lord definitely knew what He was doing when He encouraged me to focus on the little things this week. They were the only things stable in what felt like a massive tumult in every aspect of my life. I still have so much to learn.

During a lesson on Tuesday, I listened to a missionary relate his own recent conversion experience. He had been into drugs, alcohol, and didn't really care about anything else…until he read a letter that his friend’s sister had written from her mission. He went home, knelt down, and prayed to know if he should serve a mission... and felt God's love for him and the knowledge that he needed to serve. He talked to his bishop the next day and began the process. As I listened to that missionary and for the rest of the day, I wondered about my own place in the Lord's work. Sometimes I don't feel like I'm at the front of the war and I wonder if my efforts really make a difference in the tides of battle. Will a lesson I write really influence missionaries to better help others change their lives and come unto Christ? And where could my talents best be used? That is one of my main purposes in life - to help others around me come closer to Christ... and even after serving a mission and writing curriculum for the MTC, I struggle to understand how to accomplish it myself.

Thursday was rough. At the beginning of the day I taught a lesson I've taught half a dozen times, and each time the experience has been incredible. I had prayed, gone to the temple, and done everything I knew how to prepare for the lesson, and Thursday's lesson was amazing. During and after the lesson, the missionaries shared how it helped them in accomplishing their purpose in their work. The people observing who were in the classroom for the entire lesson had a similar experience. I left the lesson walking on air, happy to have been able to make a small difference in their lives.

Moments after the lesson finished, I walked into my boss's office to see if she had observed behind the glass and to let her know how it had gone. She mentioned that there had been a lot of feedback on the lesson and was just finishing with the re-write. That began the shock. Normally feedback that ends in rewrites comes from lessons that struggle, not ones that seem to go off without a hitch. As I sat quietly in her office, she related comments from a dozen different people who had observed for a few minutes behind the one-way glass, each of which criticized, not the lesson itself, but the concept behind it. One after one, while the lesson was still going on and without seeing it in its entirety, people gave her feedback to change the scope and direction of the lesson. And enough had given her feedback that she had re-written the lesson. Not completely, but almost everything was totally different, and the central activity was totally scrapped. I thought about quitting my job. I have strong feelings for this lesson, not only because I wrote it, tested it, and taught it, but because of how it affects missionaries. I could easily go to all the missionaries who ever had the lesson, ask them to relate their experiences, and get 100% to tell me it had changed their outlook on missionary work and the influence of the Spirit on the work. I know because I have asked. She explained that those giving feedback had the responsibility to eventually implement the lessons, so we needed to follow their direction. And, even if missionaries had sublime experiences that changed their lives, it wouldn't matter. Their minds were set and the rewrite was done; the lesson was scrapped. Thankfully, it was Thursday and I had a good excuse to leave shortly thereafter to go teach in Draper. I kept the tears back until I made it to the parking lot, then let myself cry during my commute. The only way I can accurately describe the feeling I had was one of utter shock and total confusion. So I prayed for rain.

If Thursday was rough, Friday was even worse. I had an immense desire to be on a team for our upcoming test. When I learned that one of our part-time employees had been chosen when the manager of training declined, I was heartbroken. Worse than heartbroken, I soon felt awful thoughts welling up inside of me. Why had I been passed over? Didn't I work incredibly hard - longer and more skillfully than anyone else? Didn't I know the lessons better than anyone since I had edited each one? Didn't I understand the perspective and context of the project from being on the team for over a year? Again, I thought about quitting. After a few seconds, I shut off the pain and jealousy and sat staring blankly at the floor. I was on the verge of tears, but this time it was from seeing my own flaws. For years I've tried to rid myself of the feeling of entitlement. Realizing that it was still there inside of me made me want to just give up and go home. I spent the remainder of the day working, worked out at the gym, was utterly exhausted, and went home.

Saturday I did almost nothing of value. My brain and body were still in shock. As I played chauffeur that evening, I realized how bad a state I was in, and why it felt like the world was falling apart around me. I was freezing (which meant that I had a burning fever; I'm never cold otherwise), my head hurt (another sure sign of sickness), and my mind wasn't working. I needed to return a DVD and went 50 blocks in the wrong direction before realizing I was lost. It didn't help that my phone wouldn't work for most of the day and my car began to overheat after only a few miles of driving. I went home, waited for the car to cool down, and drove 50 blocks the other way to make the return, praying that I would be able to make it home safely. I'm not completely sure what is wrong - I think that the fans on the radiator may not be working. The coolant is heating up, but not cooling down. Either way, I need to get it fixed before I can drive my car any appreciable distance, which may preclude going to work tomorrow until at least the afternoon. I went to sleep with two blankets and woke up a few hours later when my fever broke.

But even with the world falling apart around me, even with my body fighting off sickness and my mind fighting off depression, I was buoyed up by the little things in life. Daily scripture study helped me receive personal revelation. Daily prayer helped me know God’s plans for me. Exercising kept me mostly sane, and eating healthily certainly had helped my body in doing what it needs to do to keep me well. And Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, it rained – the answer to my prayer for rain and the voice of the Lord speaking to me… assuring me that He loves me, is aware of my problems, and is actively involved in my life. I can’t say that I feel great right now, in body, mind, or spirit. But I know that God loves me, cares about me, and has my best interests at heart, and I know that I am doing what I should be doing. In due time, He will help me see how my experiences can help me progress and come closer to Christ.

Each of us struggles in life. There are times when everything we care about seems to fall apart… and the world is on our shoulders. At those times, we can turn to the Lord and, while He may not lift our burdens, He will let us know that He is there and that He cares. If we continue to turn to Him, He will make us stronger and more able to bear the burdens that shall be placed upon us and help us learn to be happy in the process. When life is hard, turn to Him, and He will bless you with the perspective, faith, and strength to carry on. Go out and be missionaries!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Working too hard... Focusing on the simple things

The Lord told me I’ve been working too hard. That was an interesting conversation. I was just pondering how tired I was as I drove out of the MTC, and He suggested that I take two weeks off and go to Hawaii. It was definitely His voice, but I’m sure it was a joke – while for most people Hawaii would be paradise, the Lord knows as well as I do that a vacation to Hawaii wouldn’t help with my problem. If it really is a problem. That’s still up for grabs. So here’s the deal: my enjoyment in life comes from working towards my goals… drawing closer to the things that are important to me. My favorite thing to do in life, the thing that renews me, fills me with passion and joy, and makes me wake up in the morning with a smile on my face and a song in my heart, is to be productive, and to help others do the same. To learn new things, and help others do the same. To make good choices and help others do the same. And that’s all. That’s why work this last week was amazing; I had an important editing project that only I could do that consumed all my time and people constantly asked me to help them with other things. When I’m not productive, I am absolutely miserable, dejected, and depressed. It’s not just who I am – it’s what I’ve believed for as long as I can remember. Moving on the path towards salvation brings happiness. Anything else is miserable. In my mind, it goes further than that – happiness is also related to what the Lord has given you and how you are using it. If you are blessed with a little, then moving forward a little will bring you joy. But if you are blessed with a lot, and as you grow and gain more knowledge and develop more talents, you need to move faster and accomplish more to achieve your full measure of happiness… which grows with your knowledge and ability to do good. Actually discussing that in depth opens a whole new can of worms (doing the best things versus being constantly busy), and I feel like I’ve already been down that road. Everything I do, I do for a reason – to come closer to Christ… and the Lord wasn’t telling me that I needed to reprioritize everything in my life, just that I needed to take more leisure time. More won’t be hard, since I haven’t really allowed myself true leisure time in a long time. I wake up early in the morning, go to work, fill my day with meaningful activities, and fall asleep exhausted, until the next day when it happens again. What He meant was that I need to gain a testimony of leisure time – better understand how to integrate more activities into my life that move me towards my goals but aren’t as stressful as the ones I currently pursue. That sounds ironic… but, then again, I’m only recently realizing what it means to work too hard. So maybe I should take a vacation to Hawaii.

In the aftermath of that revelation, I’ve been wondering exactly what the Lord wants me to do. In the last few months, I’ve felt like I need to be on the lookout for a new job, keep applying to graduate schools, look for an eternal companion, and work on a dozen other projects to share the gospel, improve my talents, and bless the world around me. If I really am working too hard, then I need to change my focus to better align with what the Lord wants me to accomplish. And so I was wondering what the Lord really wants me to do – what I should focus on first, second, and so on. Our subsequent conversation was telling. And the music that just began playing on Utah’s FM 100.3 is telling, as well – “Great Things and Small Things” from the Cumorah’s Hill cantata. The song talks of the things that the Lord asked prophets to accomplish – building an ark, moving mountains, crossing the ocean… and the things that He asks us to do – to love our neighbors, to forgive, to keep our promises. “…and from the small things come the greatest things of all.” The Lord asked me to focus on two things: ensure that I make time for my daily spiritual wellbeing through scripture study, prayer, pondering, and regular temple worship, and time for my physical wellbeing through exercise, sleep, and eating healthily. That’s what He wants me to focus on first. And I can do that.

I think that sometimes I am guilty of the desire of Naaman, who wanted the prophet to call down fire from heaven to heal him of leprosy instead of having him wash in the river. Sometimes I want the Lord to command me to do some great thing to accomplish His will. Sometimes He has. But the Lord doesn’t usually act in great and magnificent ways; instead, He blesses me with new days where I do the same things… with small changes. And, in changing little pieces of my life, I change who I am. I read the Book of Mormon and come closer to God. I pray, and find that the Lord speaks to me and answers my prayers. I ponder, and I learn and apply the lessons that He teaches me.

Each of us has the same predicament in life as I faced this last week. We want to do what is right – to make the best choices in life and come closer to Christ. But sometimes we don’t realize how far we are from truly realizing what the best choices are. We think we need to have a clean house, a better job, and more money in the bank, when, in reality, we would be happier simply doing the little things that the Lord has suggested all along. My project this next week is to focus on the simple things: physical and spiritual health every day. Yes, sometimes the Lord calls us to do amazing things – to heal the sick, to change hearts, to fill callings, to make a difference in the world. But, more often, He calls us to simply move forward in faith… to become better each passing day and to lift those around us in the same pursuit. I invite you to do the same – to become better in the simple things. Go out and be missionaries!
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