Sunday, November 29, 2009

My greatest dream. My greatest fear.

So many time-changing things have happened this week that it almost seems sacrilegious to list them together. My uncle's (the one younger than me) marriage. Thanksgiving with family in Nauvoo. Incredible experiences in the temple. Amazing opportunities to share the Gospel. A novel whose protagonist resonates with me more than I ever thought possible. Individually, they each could be their own lesson. I learned hope, happiness and simplicity from the marriage. Gratitude from Thanksgiving. Knowledge from the temple. Courage and faith from missionary work. And introspection from my light reading. But I won't do more than mention them, because there is another lesson, even more important that I am trying to learn. Combined together, the experiences of this week seem to shout a message from the Lord meant for me.

I remember being in elementary school and getting a field trip permission slip once. I noticed that the field trip had a fee... but the trip itself was optional. My teacher instructed us to take the slip home and bring it back signed. But, for some reason, even in first or second grade, I felt that the $1.50 would be better spent if it weren't spent on me. I didn't take the permission slip home, and when the field trip came, I watched through the window as the school bus pulled away. I only felt a tinge of regret for missing the fun; I was happy that I had been strong enough to make what I felt was the right decision - sacrificing my own temporary desires for a better good.

That same personal asceticism has followed me throughout my life. I had a hard time taking voice lessons because they cost money and time and it felt like a completely selfish pursuit. I had a hard time competing in sports because I was good... and I felt bad for my rivals and was afraid that success would affect how I felt about myself and inflate my head. There were dozens of times when I couldn't bring myself to apply for scholarships and, when I did, I prayed that the funds would be given to those who needed them most - especially if it wasn't me. And in business ventures I was only happy when I knew that I was giving others much more than I was asking in return.

When I began choosing a direction in life, I wanted something that would bless the world - not something that would bring attention to me. I began as a Music Dance Theater major. I wanted to be a performer... and found incredible joy in performing. But it didn't really feel like it fit - I didn't believe that I could ever really change the world through performance - and so I put it on the back burner for what seemed like a more noble cause - the hard sciences. I finally found the 'noblest of all professions' - teaching (quote by David O. McKay) - and found that I was also in love with it, which made it the best of both worlds. But, in the back of my mind, I felt like a traitor. I had so many gifts and talents and now I was putting them to waste - not necessarily hiding them under a bushel, but refusing to stick them in a candlestick before all the world to see. I went to musical performances and wished to be on stage. I attended lectures and wished to be on the stand. I read books and wished to be an author. And I did a lot of things. I filled my life with so many impressive things that I could honestly say that there wasn't enough time to accomplish all my dreams - to do everything that I wanted to do. Everyone else agreed with me - I was already accomplishing so much anyway. But while being anxiously engaged in good causes is a good thing, it isn't enough. Deep within me, I knew I had never really tried. I had never been willing to let go of my dreams long enough to bring them into reality... where they could grow into mountains of achievement or fall and shatter into a million pieces.

I've always believed that my greatest dreams were out of reach simply because that's what greatest dreams are meant to be - unreachable. The Cinderella romanticism - something to fantasize about, think about, never to really pursue in any meaningful way. But dreams that stay dreams can never bring you happiness - only grief. This evening I realize that dreams are meant to be real. In the pursuit of dreams we triumph and fail. The fulfillment of dreams raises our vision; their shattering rebuilds our destiny. A dream left unconquested - whether from fear of failure, success, or any other reason - consigns a portion of life to the outermost skirts of reality: transient and never really true.

My greatest fear in life has been this: I'm afraid that, in the end, with my talents and gifts and blessings and trials and everything else the Lord has given me, I will have never truly lived up to my potential. I would never learn to overcome arrogance and pride, never share my talents with the world, never accomplish anything worthwhile in mortality, and I would be miserable forever. The opposite is my greatest dream. And while I am not constantly petrified with fear, there are things I've held back because I didn't want to see failure... because I was afraid of success... but things that are a part of who I am and who I want to be. And so I've decided to make my dreams come true - to throw myself so deeply into what makes me who I am that all my dreams will come true. Success will breed more dreams; failure will blaze a road for change.

The realization started when I began reading a book on the plane home from Utah and felt compellingly drawn to the protagonist. It's Howard Roark of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. I don't approve of the moral conduct of the characters, so I'm loathe to suggest it. But Roark, regardless of his morals, in the book represents a person who is so completely calmly confident - of his direction, his goal, and that his life is in line with what he knows he needs to do - that people around him admire him, envy him, and finally think he is proud and hate him. It shocked me because, when I've asked people what they felt about me, some have said that my overwhelming confidence was the biggest issue in our relationship. The most important thing to Roark is personal integrity - being true to what he knows is true. It's the most important thing to me, too. And yet Roark's vision of perfect integrity is limited to architecture (his moral structure doesn't include some of the things I take for granted) and attainable in reality, perfect integrity in my respect should cause me, daily, to change who I am. I've made a lot of changes, but there are still some things I need to work on. If someone in a novel can be so dedicated to a cause, why can't I be that dedicated in real life? And so I realize the dream of living completely according to my ideals... constantly learning and becoming a new person each day.

I turned from the book to the man sitting next to me on the plane. He was from Norway and I said a silent prayer for courage and faith, then dove into a conversation with him. After half an hour of chatting, he asked me some questions about the Church and it turned into a compelling gospel discussion on life, death, and his family. He said something interesting, "You know what's really strange? I think I'm actually going to do this. I'm going to go look up this site and go visit the missionaries." As I spoke to him, I was filled with an overwhelming love... The next dream - being a lifelong missionary in every way possible.

The rest of the week proceeded in like manner; I attended a production in Nauvoo and felt the stirring where my dream to be a performer was revived. I spoke with others about health and wellness and remembered my dream to become an expert in that field - able to answer any question (or at least know where to find the answer) according to the best knowledge of the day. I saw my uncle's marriage and wanted to be a better friend, worked in the temple and wanted to be a lifelong temple-loving Saint, and saw the needs of others and wanted to make valuable changes in their lives, today. And so I will. I am going to try to achieve all of my dreams. It probably won't cause me to become instantly amazing, but it will bring each of my dreams out of the ether and into reality.

Each of us has dreams - the deepest inner desires of our hearts that consume our waking thoughts. Sometimes we have to truly choose between dreams. And sometimes we have to simply pursue them. But, whatever we do, we need to be willing to bring our dreams out of the shadows - to see the specters that shape our subconscious thoughts and mold them in the light of day. If we will, then the Lord can help us to achieve them or to change them to fit His vision for us. I know that God is with us. He has a vision and a plan for each one of us - a plan that centers on learning to be happy. Reach for your dreams. Whether they rise of their own accord or fall will be according to your work and the will of the Lord. Either way, He will guide and direct you... and, as you learn to dream the best dreams, all of your dreams will come true. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, November 23, 2009

In the Moment

This week was great. Work is finally picking up (in reality, it hit us like a ton of bricks), Savior of the World performances are going as planned, and while life is crazy, I know that the Lord will help me choose the right direction.

That said, I'm exhausted. My boss finally got back on Monday from months of work-related travel and gave me a project that took 2 hours just to explain. It involves an Excel spreadsheet with thousands of entries – along with one other coworker, I need to read, rate, organize, group, and color-code every entry (and some entries need to be coded and rated for multiple purposes) by the end of the day on Tuesday. Wow. He called it tedious and mind-numbing, and I have to agree with the mind-numbing aspect; every few hours I have to turn to my coworker and have a short conversation just to give my head a break.

I think that I take for granted that I work in such an incredible environment, with people who are so dedicated to a cause. Working at the Missionary Training Center – no matter where you work inside – is one of the most coveted positions in the valley simply because of the environment. Add the fact that my work directly impacts everyone else at the MTC and I am amazed at the course of events that brought me here. I could be working anywhere else... and yet the Lord was kind enough to bring me here. I know I definitely didn't plan it this way... and I'm grateful that the Lord was watching out for me.

Savior of the World has also been an amazing experience. I don't think I could have chosen a better part for me to play. I'm not a lead – so I don't feel like anything revolves around me – and yet I feel like I'm an integral part of the cast. I'm making friends, developing relationships, and learning principles from people I would have never met... all the while having a great time. It's nothing like any other musical performance I've ever been in – it doesn't really feel like acting. When Christ appears to the apostles, I feel as if He is actually there in a closed room with us; it doesn't even cross my mind that I am on a stage in front of hundreds of people... and every night I find myself learning Gospel principles that influence my life.

We began public performances on Friday and play through January 2, 2010. If you go online to buy tickets, almost all the tickets are sold out. I spoke with another cast member who told me about standby. She said that, historically, very few people have been turned away from standby. You just arrive an hour early (the show starts at 7:30, so between 6-6:30), put your name on a list at the ticket office at door 5 of the Conference Center (you can park under the Conference Center – just mention you're coming to see Savior of the World), then wait as tickets become available. They hold tickets for missionary use and for other reasons, and as it gets closer to curtain, they release all of those. So, if you're 8+ years old, you could come any night even without purchasing tickets in advance and still probably get in.

Work and Savior of the World have taken most of my time, but in the moments between, I find myself wondering what will happen when it is all done. So much in my life seems to be in limbo. The biggest thing is my medium-term plan for next year – I haven't heard anything from the business school at Stanford – and no news is not necessarily good news in this case. December 16 is the admission response date, and if I haven't been invited to interview before then, I can't get in. Either way, I'll know in just a few more weeks. If I'm accepted, then my plan is to attend next Fall. If not, then I have some more decisions to make. Should I apply to another school, even though I won't be able to do a cross-curricular study involving education? Should I just try to begin my massive change-the-world-of-education project and pick up the skills as I go along? Is that even possible? And, if not getting into Stanford means putting my goal of changing the world of education on hold, what do I do in the meantime? I've thought about starting a business, throwing myself into the acting/singing/performing world, performing in Church productions like the Nauvoo pageant, moving far away and finding an intense full-time job in another field, spending all my time writing and trying to get my books published... and yet while each idea holds merit, none seems truly compelling. I have no clue which pathway to take. Each one is so completely different, and the Lord is conspicuously quiet – which means either that He expects me to make the choice and/or that the correct choice isn't yet available (the latter is what I'm expecting).

And, in the midst of it all, as I wonder if I'm making the right choices and dating the right girls and even going in the right direction to fulfill my purpose in life, the Lord sends me signs to let me know that He loves me. A wind storm. A perfectly timed conversation with a friend. The wave of memories that accompanied seeing a poem I wrote 5 years ago. In everything I do, He is there with me... beside me... and He has gone before my face to prepare the way for me (whatever that way may be). Perhaps He is simply allowing me the time to appreciate the moment – to spend time living and learning today without thinking about what tomorrow will bring. It's definitely a lesson that I am still learning to appreciate.

Each of us is often at a crossroads in life. And, even if we aren't, crossroads always loom in the distance... and of all the things that can be scary in life, uncertainty (at least to me) is one of the worst. But there is a great quote from Savior of the World as it relates to this. “It's okay to wonder about yourself. But you must never wonder about the Lord. ...Trust in the Lord – trust that He will fulfill His promises in His due time.” It's natural to wonder if we will ever measure up to the gifts and talents God has given us – if we will ever be as good as the road He has paved for us. And alone, we will never make it. We will never be good enough when we rely on our own strength. But with Him at our side, if we are actively striving to do what is right, nothing is impossible. I know that God is with us, and that He will fulfill His promises to make us great, to make us perfect, and to make us happy. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Rising from the shadows

I don't feel incredibly well right now. I'm not sick – it's an emotional / mental thing – and it has little to do with what has happened this week. But it, along with exhaustion, is affecting my ability to compose my thoughts clearly.

Looking back, this week has actually been really good. Work has been a little slow, but we're getting ready to pick up a massive project in the next few days. I went on a few dates, all of which went well. Our first preview performance of Savior of the World is Tuesday – and opening night is this coming Friday. Each practice has been a spiritual experience... and I am learning more about symbolism than I expected – from scriptural symbolism to symbolism from the temple to symbolism about everyday life.

Right now I'm fighting strong dualistic tendencies. One part of me wants to simply write about the good things that have happened – to fill my letter with whatever I can to be optimistic and bright. That's the feeling I've followed and, as I've tried, my mood has lightened and the darkness is shifting. On the other hand, I wanted to be truthful – to have my letter reflect what was going on in my head. And so, now that I feel a bit better, I'd like to share the experience I just had... because, perhaps, it may be what you need.

As soon as I returned home from a fireside this evening, I began writing my thoughts. I realized that I needed to better understand what was happening in my mind. I often do that while I'm writing letters – if I have strong thoughts or feelings, I take a detour, write what could be considered a long journal entry, then cut and paste pieces of it to use in my letter. This is part of what I wrote:

“Some days I'm around people who seem to have it all put together – at least in the areas where I lack. I see their talents, their blessings, and the happiness in their lives... and I see the stark contrast to my own life. What I want most seems to come so easily... and it seems as if they almost take it for granted. I look at my life and wonder why I don't have those skills – why I fall so completely behind – and, like demons in the night, everything I've ever done wrong comes back to haunt me. Maybe if I had spent more time engaged as a child... if I had been more dedicated... if I had not made so many horrible mistakes... if I were simply a better person... then the Lord would see fit to bless me. And then I look at the innumerable blessings and talents the Lord has already given me (including those that others want so badly), and I feel like an ungrateful wretch.

I have skills in learning, in teaching, in writing, in singing, in doing whatever I want... but I seem to lack the ability to get close to people. People come into my life and go out like water through my hands. And I do the same in theirs.

I have friends and a great family... and I know that people care about me and I about them. And so I know that this feeling isn't really real. And yet it comes and goes and I wonder if the Lord is simply teaching me that I need to rely on Him and Him alone... that I need to turn to Him for support and have Him be my truest confidant and friend. Through the years, I have developed my ability to communicate with Him and that has come partially true... but when I don't listen to His voice and it goes silent... I feel so completely alone that sometimes I just curl up in a ball and cry.

I guess that makes sense... since one of the greatest things that the Lord has taught me is to listen to His voice. And while I have definitely had friends to turn to, and a family to support me, He is always there for me when no one else knows what is wrong... when no one else can tell the difference. And, I guess I'm grateful for the blessing that He's given me – the utter feelings of helplessness and the requirement to turn to Him for relief. It keeps me humble... and each time that I turn to Him, I learn something more about who I am and who I might someday be.

Today I'm almost wracked with jealousy... Why am I so jealous? I think it's because I haven't yet learned how to be happy. I'm sorry, Father. I guess I should welcome the pain... since I deserve it and hopefully it will help me to be better. I guess I'm not really jealous – only so completely disheartened that I can't seem to make it in what seems so important in life. Sometimes I think that I'm ok – that it's simply an opportunity for me to grow. And perhaps my chance is over and life will go on without me, passing me by. I know that this may not be true, but it's what I feel. It's what aches me and pains me and the fear I have more than anything else in the world – that my mistakes will lead to everlasting sorrow and that I have, somehow, denied myself eternal peace.”

I didn't feel comfortable sending that by itself, especially since it's completely depressing. I didn't want to send it for a few reasons. First, every time I send something remotely desolate, people get concerned about me. I really appreciate it, but I don't want to be an emotional burden. You have enough stress in your life without my problems. Second, I really, really, really wish that I were perfect... and it's hard for me to admit that I struggle in life. So I went into the other room and asked for help to lift my feelings... and I tried to write something uplifting – to count my blessings and to be grateful for what I've received. As I wrote and prayed and thought about the good things in my life, amazingly, it worked. I feel full of peace and hope when before they were gone.

I don't know if each of us goes through times when we feel totally discouraged and alone. Most likely yes – if only so that the Lord can teach us and bless us for turning to Him in our times of need. As I've felt pain (self-inflicted from mistakes or not) and turned to Him, I've learned more than I ever thought possible... and grown so much closer to Him. And, while I won't wish for pain (or fully appreciate it when it inevitably returns), I'm grateful that the Lord has given me the obstacles I need to face on the road to perfection... and the strength to overcome them. My invitation for you – the next time you feel distraught, discouraged, downtrodden, or depressed, collect your thoughts. Write them down or pray aloud... and ask the Lord for help in rising from them. Pray to know that He loves you... and for peace and help in becoming better – no matter what you have done in the past. Count your blessings, engage in the service of others, and give away your sorrow to the Lord. He will give you peace. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Inward Reflections - Nov 9, 2009

This week my letter will be short. As far as outward progression goes, this week could rank pretty low on the scale. Projects at work are at a temporary standstill, no news from Stanford on my application (no news doesn't equal good news in this case), and everything is going as planned for Savior of the World. I haven't achieved any major accomplishments or even begun on the road to attempt anything world-changing. But life is a growing experience nonetheless – and that's important in my life. Last week I fretted about not having a powerful, passionate, urgent need to consume my time. Normally I throw myself head over heels into something and it devours every waking moment of my life. But I've realized that I don't need to have one overarching passion that consumes me – there are plenty of amazing things that I need to accomplish in life – things that are part of commitments that I've already made. And I can simply be passionate in the completion of those things.

Whenever I seem to have a bit of unscheduled time, I think of all the things that I could begin – projects, plans, and programs. And sometimes I overlook the commitments I've already made – and the projects that I started the last time it happened. Each of us has the opportunity to schedule our time. Sometimes we have passionate, overarching visions that can guide us in our lives... and sometimes we are simply surviving on the day-to-day. My invitation for you is to live in the moment this week – to be passionate in the little things each moment and to see the hand of God wherever you find yourself. As you turn to Him and focus on the little things in life, I promise that He will open your eyes, help you feel greater peace, and guide you on the path to happiness. Then you can go share it with the world. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, November 2, 2009

An Ensemble Role in Life

This week has been good. My beard is finally getting long enough that it doesn't always make me want to rip my face off, there is a light at the end of the tunnel (or project) at work, and practices for Savior of the World are continuing in earnest. We start performing in two and a half weeks!

Looking back over the past few months, I had family reunions and vacations, the Pirates of Penzance with the movie on top of it, then Grandma got sick, I got another calling, and there was the chaos surrounding my sister getting cancer and reading research studies on rats and novel non-invasive cancer treatments, a new school year (even though I'm not attending school as a student), I started studying for the GMAT and applied to Stanford, then Grandma got really sick, then there was General Conference, Grandma's funeral, and two Stake Conferences. I've realized that each of those commitments was big enough that I've had no free time since the beginning of the summer! I didn't have to worry about planning out my day – I had already planned it by making massive commitments. Now, I'm to a point where every hour of every day isn't taken up by something massive and urgent, and I feel... much less useful. I've been struggling a bit to figure out what I need to be doing with the extra time in my life. I have two jobs and a major volunteering project, and my Sundays are booked with meetings. But I still have a few hours here and there – and without a pressing project I find them simply disappearing... gone without a trace. And that is completely not the way I want to live my life. So the question at the front of my mind has been, “what next?”

In the back of my mind I'm also wondering what direction to go if Stanford doesn't end up being the right option. I've only applied to one school so far... and even though Stanford has a much higher acceptance rate than the program I applied to last year, it's still pretty low. Add to that the fact that I don't know what will happen at work once our big project is finished (and the budget from which I'm being paid runs out) and I don't know how long I'll be living here... and I'm definitely walking in the dark. But that's ok. I know that the Lord will take care of me. And if He reveals what will happen tomorrow, today, I'll be that much happier. If not, then I'll wait for tomorrow.

At Savior of the World on Friday and in the temple on Saturday I received the answer to my question. I realized that life is somewhat like our production. In Savior of the World, every actor is cast as a member of the ensemble, and, with only a few exceptions, every cast member appears on the colonnade as an angel in heaven, watching events unfold. Some cast members are just part of the ensemble; others play temporary roles on stage, then put back on their angel robe and go back to their places on the colonnade. Though individual actors are each integral to a certain part, they aren't really center stage for long. In life, each of us is cast in an ensemble role. We are expected to do all the same things... and, then, if the Lord finds a need, He will ask us to move mountains (one of my jobs) or to be special witnesses of Him. How willing am I to accept an “ensemble role” in life – am I willing to simply do as He asks without being a major actor – without being someone horribly important or visible from the outside world?

When I was little, I thought that God would have to have some awesome work for me to accomplish in building the kingdom. He had given me so many talents, gifts, and blessings – seemingly more than anyone else I had ever met – so there must be something incredible that He wanted me to do. But, as I've watched the Lord in His work, and seen how and why He calls His children to help Him, I've realized that callings in life (both in and out of the Church) have very little to do with innate talents or gifts. There are incredible singers and actors in the ensemble of Savior of the World – and there are professional teachers who don't teach Sunday School. And, in both cases, that's ok. Because the Lord isn't focused on placing people where they fit best – He is focused on helping His children have experiences that will help them come unto Christ.

And so my calling in life may be to change the world. Maybe I'll stand center stage like I did during Pirates of Penzance... and leave a legacy for generations. Or my calling may be to simply be a good father, husband, son, brother, and missionary – play an ensemble role and support those around me. Either way, I can build the kingdom of God and be happy by doing the little things – exercising, praying, studying the scriptures, magnifying my callings, serving others... and those are the things that should be consuming my time when nothing else is happening.

Sometimes it can be easy to look at our lives and wonder if we are going in the right direction – if we are really making a difference or fulfilling our personal purpose in life. In reality, it doesn't take much to fulfill our purpose in life each day. If we will pray, study the scriptures, take time to attend the temple, and keep the commandments, the Lord will help us to make the right decisions to keep us on the path. And He will help us to accomplish our purpose... and to feel peace no matter where we are on the road to eternity. I know that God loves us, and that doing the little things will enable us to do whatever the Lord asks of us – whether seemingly great or small.
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