Monday, December 14, 2009

Visions of Grandeur

Even after 5 years of writing, beginning this letter doesn't get any easier each week. I have to admit that I thought it would – the whole, “As you do something more, it becomes easier” motif – but beginning has always been awful. I often find myself sitting in front of the computer on Sunday night, wishing that it would write itself and forward me a copy... and then, half an hour into writing, I wonder what was wrong with me. At least the writing part, once I'm sitting down, awake, and can convince myself that I have a general direction, has become easier over the years.

I feel like Christmas has come in a whirlwind of snow. Monday the MTC had a part-time staff member Christmas party at work; Tuesday was the ¾ and full-time meeting (since I'm ¾-time, I attended both); Friday was our department Christmas party/staff meeting. Friday we also had a ward Christmas party with gingerbread house competitions (my brother and I won with a gingerbread castle complete with turrets). Last Sunday I attended the First Presidency Christmas Devotional and on Saturday I went to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert. Then Sunday was the Christmas program in my morning ward, and the same ward participated in a musical fireside last night. The snow began early in the week, and by Saturday was coming down hard enough that I almost didn't make it up the hill driving home. Out shoveling the driveway, I envisioned a new kind of snow removal system that melts snow instead of moving it. Someday, when I have a massive laboratory, I'll be able to create the dozens of inventions that have appeared in my head over the years.

Christmas had brought with it a slew of life-changing decisions to make, and I'm still stuck on the most basic. I've been struggling to understand what I'm supposed to be accomplishing right now in my life – which will affect all the rest. My original goal was to attend graduate school immediately after BYU, but as I've applied to programs the Lord has shown me how they didn't really fit my needs. I realize now that part of the desire to attend graduate school was to simply postpone making important decisions (like, exactly what should I do in life?). I've already had almost every job I've ever wanted, and while each of them has been compelling in one way or another, none feels completely right. I could imagine myself as a baker – creating healthy recipes and sharing them with others, a game designer – creating new methodologies and designing norms to fix the world of interactive games, a curriculum writer – finding ways to help teachers create an interactive environment to meet the needs of each of their students, or a performer, a high school teacher, or an educational consultant. But experiencing each of my dream jobs has only led me to realize that none of them really fit my dreams... and to wonder if I will ever find anything that will. The realization that I had this week – one that made me very uncomfortable – was that perhaps I was looking in the wrong direction. Maybe the Lord never intended for me to go to graduate school. Maybe I simply need to be a normal person, living a normal life, without anything to make me stand out from the crowd. This had never crossed my mind, and it seemed to threaten my greatest desire – to constantly be learning. Would I be willing to give that up? Am I willing to give that up to build the kingdom?

I don't think that the Lord will actually ask me to not go to graduate school or to redirect my passion for learning. But I realized that the direction I've taken isn't necessarily the right direction for everyone. People can be successful, and happy, without taking tons of classes. They can be happy doing something completely different, whether it's product sales or working at fast food restaurants or simply raising animals. I've known that – people can learn to be happy in any situation – realizing that they wouldn't be happy doing what makes me shine was the shock. Drawing a parallel to the “white man's burden,” looking at Western society, we want to make people happy by teaching them our language, giving them our technology, and having them experience life as we experience it. But maybe those experiences wouldn't lead to happiness... because the individuals find greater joy doing what they are already doing.

I could live with that. But there was something else in my mind that was still irking me. After some thought, I realized that one of my measures of success in life was knowledge – and not just knowledge about the gospel, but knowledge about the world. In my mind, people with more knowledge were more successful (and hence, more happy) in that arena of life. The realization that people could be happy, follow the prophet, have joy, live fulfilling lives, inherit eternal glory, and not understand a minutia of computer science was foreign to me (however absurd it seems writing it right now). He who achieves a greater level of intelligence in this life has that much of an advantage in the world to come, right? While the scripture is true, its application is much broader than simply relating to our worldly happiness. In fact, knowledge isn't what makes you happy – it's integrity – the faithful and righteous application of that knowledge. People can be happy and successful as long as they have integrity, no matter where they are on the path of knowledge.

When I widened my vision of success, it didn't really help me better understand my future direction in life. To the contrary, it opened a thousand doors I had never contemplated entering. But it also helped me realize how motivations work in helping us make decisions in school, in work, in life. My greatest motivations are to learn and to serve. If I'm not learning or helping in some meaningful way, I am absolutely miserable... and understanding the things that make people happy – the motivations that move them to make choices in their lives – begins with understanding their core desires. Maybe understanding myself comes in the same way. In my patriarchal blessing, there is one line that talks about my future professional course: As you select your vocation in life, you will be able to set and accomplish goals that will prepare you to study and to recall the knowledge and truths of the world. After 10 years of trying to decode that statement, I've realized only that my future vocation, whatever I end up choosing, should involve continual learning and remembering/applying that knowledge. That doesn't close any doors, either. Whatever.

Ultimately, peace and happiness in life come from God when we live according to the knowledge we have been given. For much of my life, I've been concerned with determining exactly how much knowledge I needed to acquire to be a faithful servant in the kingdom – a masters? A PhD? Multiple post-docs? What the Lord has been trying to teach me is that happiness doesn't come when we have acquired great knowledge, but when we have applied the things that we know to be true. When we study the scriptures daily, repent of our sins, attend the temple, attend Church meetings, keep the commandments, give meaningful service to others, and put our lives in the hand of the Lord. We can, and will, be happy when we follow that simple outline. Does it make choosing my vocation any easier? No. But at least it gives me the assurance that, even if I don't make the right choice initially, I can still be happy on the road. I guess that's what life is – walking on the road to perfection, making some good choices and many not-so-good choices, and learning all the while to look to God, move forward, and be happy. Go out and be missionaries!

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