Monday, May 4, 2009

The Search for Greatness

As the days of summer go on, I am realizing how much discipline will be required to accomplish my goals. I also wish I better knew my goals... There are so many good things, but they're all scheduled at the same time. I only hope that I am making the right choices and leaving the wrong choices behind.

There is a quote I found on my aunt's refrigerator this last week. It's by President Hinckley, quoting Geoffrey Colvin. “We will achieve greatness only through an enormous amount of hard work over many years. The good news is that [our] lack of a natural gift is irrelevant – talent has little or nothing to do with greatness. Nobody is great without work.”

At one point in my life (and had it come from Colvin directly and not through a prophet), I may have contested this quote. I believed that greatness was synonymous with talent – that those who were talented in a certain area were destined to be great in it, and those who did not have those talents would be great in other things. And life seemed to agree with my belief. Students who were able to quickly learn in public school received accolades, honors, and scholarships to go on to higher learning, while students who struggled often set their sights on a different path. The naturally talented in art became artists; those talented in music got the best singing parts and made connections with the best teachers; those with athletic talent were recruited to play the sports of their choice.

To me, “greatness” was simply being better than most of the people around you. While the talented who had reached greatness may have had to work, they didn't have to work nearly as hard as those without talent. I saw that in my own life. The girl who sat next to me in AP Economics spent hours studying math so she could understand it. I can count the classes on one hand that have made me study – advanced physics included. I could easily beat my teammates in swimming... even though they trained in the off season and I missed every morning practice for Seminary. My greatness, according to my definition, was coming without the intense work I saw in their lives... and it was meaningless.

I realized that perhaps I had set my sights too low – perhaps my definition of great, which simply meant that I was better than most, needed to be raised. Raising the level to “one of the best in the world” seemed high enough, but I soon realized that the amount of work required to improve even one of my talents to that level would consume my life. Hence why talent has little to do with true greatness – even in the greatest of my gifts, my “natural talents” avail me nothing without work.

The great truth of the quote I mentioned before lies in the fact that all can become great with work. No inborn talent takes a man all the way to greatness in a given field, but no lack of talent can keep him from it. That is what President Hinckley meant, and the promise he gave to us. If we are willing to invest the work that it will take to become great, we can become great. Yes, it may be easier, at first, for one man than for another. But both can become great with time.

I quit swimming in high school. I haven't spent much time with formal music training. I didn't pursue diving. I stopped dancing shortly after my mission. I realized that I didn't want to define myself solely by those activities. And yet, I found that I had natural talent in each of those areas and in many others. I don't have enough time in life to become the best in all those areas... and, for a long time, I felt it was my fault. Perhaps I wasn't working hard enough. Perhaps the time I wasted doing other things could have enabled me to be a concert pianist, an Olympic swimmer, and to graduate with a triple major. Yet, even when I dedicated all my time to the improvement of my talents I wasn't able to develop them all... and I realized that, again, I had set my sights too low. I wanted to become great in something... while my goal should have simply been to become great.

This little quote is symbolic of a realization that has brought me incredible peace. For much of my life, I thought that greatness – being one of the best in the world – was an obligation that came with talent. Those who were blessed with natural gifts had the divine duty to become great in the expression of their gifts. That was my interpretation of the parable of the talents – if the Lord gave you two, you gave back four. If He gave you two hundred, you gave back four hundred. Hence, if He gave me a gift, it was my responsibility to use it and to make it great... for every gift.

I am realizing more and more, as time goes on, that talents and trials are simply tools that the Lord uses to shape us into the people He wants us to become... and the greatness He expects of us has little to do with the talents we were given. I don't need to perform on Broadway, learn 20 languages, or win gold medals to use my talents to build the kingdom... I just need to be willing to use and develop them the best I can. The reason why the Lord gives us each talents, skills, blessings, trials, and difficulties is to help us grow to become more like Him, and to help others – that all may be profited thereby. True greatness comes from improving our talents, using our skills and blessings to help others, enduring our trials well, and learning from and overcoming our difficulties. He expects us to do all that we can to improve ourselves – to become great – and He will do the rest. As long as I am doing my best and trust in Him, it doesn't matter if I have become great in all things. What matters is that I became great in my willingness to follow God.

I look at my own life and the things that I do. I definitely have a long way to go before I ever reach 'greatness.' And that's ok. Greatness is just a step on the pathway to perfection, and I don't expect to arrive there very soon... The good news is that greatness is possible for each of us, no matter who we are or what we have done in our lives. We can become great – people that inspire others to come unto Christ and change the world with their very existence.

The road to greatness differs with each one of us, but it is always possible. We are children of God, and He expects us to become great – to become loving members of His kingdom, willing to give everything we have to the building up of Zion. I know that the true measure of whether we have used our talents and blessings wisely will not be whether we won an Academy Award... but whether we learned how to turn to God and to bless the lives of others. That is why which talents we have, and how much of them, is irrelevant to the pursuit of greatness – no matter what we were given, it will take a lifetime of work. And that's ok. God will bless and guide us in our quest. Stay on the path to greatness and help others find it, too – go out and be missionaries!

Friday, May 1, 2009

On Pulling Weeds (Apr 27 09)

Dear Family and Friends,

I graduated from BYU this week. I loved having my parents and grandmothers here; it was a rewarding experience to simply spend time with them among the festivities of convocation and commencement.

Looking back, the work that I accomplished in order to graduate seems small. I worked for two summers doing research for my Honors Thesis. I wrote hundreds of pages for essays and projects, took tests, and read textbooks. I attended thousands of hours of classes... and, in a moment, it's over. And while I look back and see many things that have become easy with the doing of them, I look ahead in life and see massive mountains to climb – things I have no clue how to start, let alone finish. I guess I'm going to become a mountain climber.

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, a common family project was pulling the perpetual weeds that plagued our front, side, and back gardens. Because of the high clay and rock content of our soil, there was rarely any real “pulling” of weeds – instead, we often had to use a shovel to loosen all the surrounding dirt before the roots would come free. For that reason, I often equated pulling weeds with tedious, tiring work that could stretch over days. So, when I went outside on Saturday to pull weeds (here in Utah), I was surprised at how easy it was. The weeds seemed to be jumping out of the soil into my hands. I could even simply grab them by the base and pull... and they would come out by the root. I know that Utah has a much lower proportion of clay and a higher proportion of sand in its soil, and the regular applications of mulch in my grandmother's garden probably make a difference, but I had an amazing experience – pulling weeds on Saturday wasn't tiring or tedious. It was soothing and peaceful.

My next thought was, “If everyone in Utah has soil like this, then gardening should be natural to everyone... and their gardens should be amazing!” In the same breath, I realized that different difficulties plague gardens here when compared to the Midwest. While Chicagoans struggle with deep-rooted weeds, too much water caught in the clay, and rocky soil, here there is a hot, desert sun, a lack of rain, and few natural components in the soil to release moisture over time. And deer. We can't even plant some plants because the deer will eat them. And I thought that the squirrels eating our apples were frustrating... (And I'm sure that some people who haven't had the experience of pulling weeds in Chicago loathe pulling weeds here.)

Just as each of our gardens is different, each of our lives is different. One person may find it easy to make friends while another does not. One person has the ability to do mathematics in her head, and another has trouble using a calculator. There is no one in the world that has the exact same life as another... but we all have something in common. Life is always hard. It may be hard from having to use our blessings and talents to bless the lives of others... or it may be hard from the trials that surround us. If we compare our lives to others, it may seem that one life is harder than another. In reality, whatever our blessings and circumstances are in the moment is the best possible environment to help us grow.

As I enter a new stage of my own life, I realize that some things that once were hard come naturally. And other things, that I took for granted, can become more and more of a struggle. But the methods for overcoming those obstacles haven't changed – perseverance, hard work, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

I know that God is the gardener in our lives. He knows the areas of the field and the conditions we need in order to thrive. If we will turn to Him and cheerfully do all that we can do, some day we will see the fruits of our labors. Our gardens will always have weeds, rocky soil, too much sun, or some other difficulty... the trick is to gain an eternal perspective. Then, perhaps, pulling weeds and perfecting our own lives will change from being painful and tiring to sublime. The field is white – go out and be missionaries!

Parable of the Lost Coin... (Apr 19 09)

Dear Family and Friends,

Life is amazing. This next week I graduate from BYU; if you'd like to attend, you're definitely welcome. Commencement, which will include talks by President Uchtdorf and Elder Nelson, is in the BYU Marriott Center at 4:00 on Thursday. Convocation, where my name is read and I walk on a stage, is at 8:00 am Friday in the Wilkinson Center Ballroom. After Convocation, there is a physics department demonstration in C-215 of the Eyring Science Center, and then there is an open house for graduates, families, and friends (with food) in the same building from 11:30 to 1:30.

My plans for the summer are still somewhat up in the air, but I think I am staying in Provo. I plan on writing a few books, maybe learning a language (Chinese?), taking voice lessons, spending a lot of time socializing, and either finding a full-time job or doing an unpaid internship (since many places aren't hiring right now). I'm not sure what is happening after the summer is over.

This last week started out a bit rough, but I've been able to learn a lot from the Lord. I saw trees broken from the weight of a crazy snowstorm and thought, “That's a parable of the importance of cutting away the unnecessary parts of our lives – to make stronger branches that can hold their own weight.” Two days later it was bright, sunny, and gorgeous... and I thought, “That's the message that good weather (and blessings from the Lord) is only ever a few days away.” But the message that has impacted me the most was incredibly simple, and from a place I hadn't thought I would ever really appreciate – the parable of the lost coin.

Luke 15:8-9

What woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbors together, saying, Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I had lost.”

For the last 23 years I haven't given much thought to the parable of the lost piece of silver. The parable itself is only two verses long and is sandwiched between the symbolic giants of the lost sheep and the prodigal son – both of which I felt like I appreciated. On the other hand, I've never really understood why the woman in the parable would spend all night sweeping the floor just to find a lost piece of silver. I've never really felt all that attached to money, and so I thought that perhaps the parable was meant for people who felt a deeper connection with silver or material wealth.

As I mentioned in my last letter, I lost my wallet 10 days ago. When I first lost it, I felt awful. It was partly due to the fact that I had lost my credit cards, driver's license, and temple recommend, but mostly due to my feelings of inadequacy since I had lost it. What had I done to lose it? Why was I so unobservant that I would lose it? Why had I let it happen? Had someone somehow taken it without my knowing? It felt like it was my fault, and I had no idea where to find it.

Like the woman in the parable, I spent hours searching for my wallet... but I had a larger area than just a dirt floor. I scoured my entire apartment, emptied my car and my backpack a dozen times, and called everywhere I had set foot that day until they told me they would call if they found it. I prayed for guidance and asked everyone I knew to help in the search... but nothing happened. I felt like it would turn up eventually... I was supposed to be patient in the meantime.

If losing my wallet was a test to see how I would cope with life, I probably failed miserably. Thankfully, the Lord allows us as many retakes as are necessary. After a week of searching I finally realized the lesson I was supposed to learn. I truly believed that the Lord would help me, no matter what happened. If I didn't find it, that was ok. If I was willing to turn to the Lord, He would help me in all of my problems.

I found my wallet on Friday... and the feeling that I experienced was amazing. Only minutes before, I had felt awful, and now I felt like jumping for joy and immediately called my family members to tell them the good news. I thought about all the people I could tell about my experience finding my wallet... and it was at that moment that the parable of the lost piece of silver came into my mind. I suddenly understood why the woman would call her friends and neighbors just to tell them about a piece of silver... and I came to better understand verse 10 of chapter 15: “Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.” I had felt a very small amount of pain in losing my wallet and an absurd amount of joy at finding it... and I realized, in part, how much pain the Lord and His angels must feel when they see us lose our way... and how much joy they feel to see us return to the light.

I know that God loves us. In the parable of the lost coin, we are the lost coins, and He is the one to whom they are lost. But, unlike the story, He knows exactly who we are and is not searching for us... but for ways to bring us back to Him. In our constant search to return back to God, knowing that He is actively searching for us and unwilling to give up can give us hope. No matter what we have done in the past, He is still looking for the best way to make the future bright. The Lord loves you. While you may be temporarily lost, you are never lost from His sight, and He rejoices when you turn to Him. And, yes, losing my wallet was a blessing. I've learned to rely on the Lord and His judgment, no matter what happens (for now, at least).

Happy Easter! (Easter 09)

Dear Family and Friends,

I lost my wallet sometime this week. I've checked my backpack a dozen times, gone through my luggage, retraced my steps, and searched my room and my car... and yet I still haven't found it. And, perhaps the most unnerving part, and my main cause for concern, I get a blank when I pray to know where to look. Most of the time, I ask for help and I see a sort of snapshot of where my missing item is, whether underneath a pillow or inside a box somewhere. I spent the last few hours (which I wanted to spend writing) looking again... with no luck. Hopefully I find it soon.

Realizing that I've lost my wallet was probably the only difficult thing this week, which was nice. This week was actually amazing. I've created a schedule for myself that includes outlining the time I want to spend studying the scriptures, writing, and everything else that is important... and it is amazing to see how much I am able to accomplish. While I'm still not entirely sure what I will be doing with my life in the coming months, I am sure that the Lord will take care of me. Too many things are happening that let me know that He is watching over me.

Since it is Easter, I thought I would simply bear my testimony. I know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I know that He was born of Mary and lived a perfect life. I know that He taught the truth and led the way for us to return to Heaven someday, and that He atoned for our sins, our sorrows, and all our mistakes. I know that He died for us and was resurrected on the third day... and that He lives. I know that He lives and guides us today through a living prophet, and that He will come again to the earth someday. The Gospel's message is one of peace and joy – go out and share it with the world! Go out and be missionaries!

Doing Good, No Matter What the Cost (Apr 5 09)

Dear Family and Friends,

This last week was amazing. I finish student teaching on Wednesday, which will probably make me cry... but life goes on. And hopefully I have left a legacy of love and faith for my students to remember.

General Conference was amazing. From the Saturday Afternoon session where I sang in the choir (look for me in the bottom left corner), to the sustaining of General Authorities and other officers in the Church, to incredible talks that seemed written just for me, this weekend has changed my life for the better.

Each time I attend or watch General Conference, I am filled with a firm testimony that God truly knows and understands my problems... and that He speaks with His servants here on the earth. I go to Conference with questions, and, every time, my questions have been answered. Sometimes speakers simply bring the Spirit with their testimony and the Spirit teaches me something completely unrelated to the subject of their talk. Sometimes they mention something and the Spirit adds more to what they said. And sometimes they come out and give me the answer I need. The answers I've found in Conference have helped me make difficult decisions, understand trials, and step forward with faith into the unknown. I do not personally know anyone who spoke in Conference this year, and they, upon inquisition, probably wouldn't know my name, let alone the deepest desires of my heart. And yet they, by virtue of simply following the guidance of the Spirit, have had a lasting impact in my life.

I wonder how many people leave General Conference or read the Ensign and are silently touched and changed forever. I'm sure that everyone within hearing congratulates those who spoke, but is it possible to ever really understand the total impact of their words? Do any of us ever truly understand the impact we have on others?

I spent this past summer with my family. One day while we were at the outdoor pool a few miles from my house, I felt like I needed to immediately go home. This was not a very convenient feeling, as my parents had just arrived in the only vehicle brought to the pool, since the rest of us had ridden bikes. The pool would also close only a half hour later. The feeling persisted, and, somewhat confused and frustrated, I drove home. I arrived and checked everything from the furnace to the drain pipes, wondering if some major emergency had caused the prompting... but nothing was wrong. My thoughts were, “I'm here. What should I do?” Within moments, another prompting came. This time, I felt like I needed to wait, and that someone would call and tell me what I needed to do. So I went outside and sat in our van in the driveway with my cell phone in my hand, waiting. Only a few minutes passed before my phone rang. It was my younger sister, who was just leaving the pool. She had forgotten to set the DVR to record the “Hannah Montana in 3D” concert that was showing that night and needed me to start the recording.

As I hung up and realized that this was the reason I had been prompted, I felt a powerful mix of emotions. Shock, that the Lord thought that a Hannah Montana concert was important. Awe, that He cared enough about my sister to value something that was valuable to her, if only temporarily. Amazement, that the Lord would use divine revelation to ask me to do something so mundane... and gratitude, that I had followed the prompting. Perhaps the Lord was testing me – to determine if I would follow Him in little things before entrusting me with other responsibilities... or perhaps He wanted to teach me how far He would go to bless His children.

Another time the Lord used me to touch the life of one of His children was on my mission. My companion and I were looking for an area to visit in the little town of Quartu, Sant'Elena. As we looked at our makeshift map, one street caught my eye. It caught his eye, too, and we knocked every door on the street. We got in once that entire evening (which was actually not bad for Quartu during the winter), but the family wasn't really interested in the Gospel. But we still felt like there was a reason why we had gone to that street... and returned the next day... and the next... and the next. The family we had taught once was never home again, and all of the people who had asked us to maybe pass back were very hostile when we returned. It seemed that nothing was happening until we met a man on the street one afternoon and began talking with him. We didn't recognize him, but he mentioned that he had spoken with us a few days before. We then remembered – he had opened the door but wouldn't let us into his house. We talked with him about the Prophet Joseph Smith and the doctrine of eternal families in this little walkway between the front door and the door to his house. He mentioned that he had read the pamphlet we had left on the family and prayed about it... and that He knew it was true. Because we followed a prompting, we were able to find, teach, and baptize Ignazio and help him to understand and apply the principles of the Gospel.

We can each receive quiet promptings from the Lord throughout our lives. But when we receive a prompting from the Holy Spirit, we can't tell if the final result will be recording a Hannah Montana concert or permanently changing the life of a son or daughter of God. Sometimes we never know in this life. But we can know that by following the promptings of the Lord we are accomplishing His work. We are doing good in the lives of others - since promptings that come from the Lord are those that invite us to do good and come unto Christ. If we will commit to following Him, He will direct our paths and help us to become more like Christ. As you ponder on the messages of General Conference and recent events in your life, whether by watching conference on, pondering, or reading the talks in next month's Ensign, you will feel prompted by the Lord to do things. The Lord never teaches us something without asking us to do something to apply what we have learned. I challenge you to follow those promptings, no matter what they are or how hard or inconvenient they may seem. I promise that as you do so, you will come to better recognize the voice of the Lord in your life. You will become an instrument in His hand – not only to accomplish tender mercies in the lives of teenagers, but also to help to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

I know that God lives. He sent His Son to live and show us the way. He speaks today through a prophet of God, and we can receive personal revelation from the highest if we will simply listen and obey. Follow the promptings of the Spirit, and He will bless you with strength and faith. Go out and be missionaries!

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