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!
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