Friday, January 10, 2014

January First Presidency Message: The Best Time to Plant a Tree


I really liked the First Presidency message for this month by President Uchtdorf, so I want to comment on it. (My words in black, his in green.) It seems to me that one of President Uchtdorf’s great strengths as an apostle is his exuberant enthusiasm and hopefulness.    

In ancient Rome, Janus was the god of beginnings. He was often depicted with two faces—one looking back on the past, the other looking forward to the future. Some languages name the month of January after him because the beginning of the year was a time for reflection as well as planning.
Thousands of years later, many cultures throughout the world carry on a tradition of making resolutions for the new year. Of course, making resolutions is easy—keeping them is a different thing altogether.
One man who had made a long list of New Year’s resolutions felt pretty good about his progress. He thought to himself, “So far, I’ve stuck to my diet, I haven’t lost my temper, I’ve kept to my budget, and I haven’t once complained about the neighbor’s dog. But today is January 2 and the alarm just went off and it’s time I got out of bed. It’s going to take a miracle to keep my streak going.”

It’s SO TRUE!!  For some reason when we start a new resolution, it is pretty easy to do it for a day or two.. or three.  But at some point the shiny wears off and then it seems like a long, hard slog.  Or something comes up that gets in the way.  Or we slack off our effort because we think we don’t need to work as hard at it as we have. 

There is something incredibly hopeful about a fresh start. I suppose at one time or another we have all wanted to start again with a clean slate.
I love getting a new computer with a clean hard drive. For a time it works perfectly. But as the days and weeks pass by and more and more programs get installed (some intentional, some not so intentional), eventually the computer begins to stall, and things it used to do quickly and efficiently become sluggish. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all. Even getting it to start can become a chore as the hard drive becomes cluttered with miscellaneous chaos and electronic debris. There are times when the only recourse is to reformat the computer and start over.
Human beings can likewise become cluttered with fears, doubts, and burdensome guilt. The mistakes we have made (both intentional and unintentional) can weigh upon us until it may seem hard to do what we know we should.
In the case of sin, there is a wonderful reformatting process called repentance that allows us to clear our internal hard drives of the clutter that burdens our hearts. The gospel, through the miraculous and compassionate Atonement of Jesus Christ, shows us the way to cleanse our souls of the stain of sin and once again become new, pure, and as innocent as a child.
But sometimes other things slow us down and hold us back, causing unproductive thoughts and actions that make it hard for us to get started.

I’d say the experience with computers is a very useful metaphor here. (And I'm not sure why I like it so much, but I do.)

Along with repentance, we need grace (enabling power of God) to help us make it through life, but we can’t have it without giving our total effort and commitment to it.  And so often we would give that total effort except we have fallen prey to destructive thought patterns that in some way weaken us.  I love that Elder Uchtdorf teaches many principles (not just here but in other talks too) that help us discover destructive thought patterns and helps us replace them with helpful ones instead. 

I have a lot of troubles with doubts, fears, and perfectionism.  I feel like I’m always fighting it, so I appreciate principles that help me escape those unproductive patterns.

Setting goals is a worthy endeavor. We know that our Heavenly Father has goals because He has told us that His work and glory is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
Our personal goals can bring out the best in us. However, one of the things that derail our efforts in making and keeping resolutions is procrastination. We sometimes delay starting, waiting for the right moment to begin—the first day of a new year, the beginning of summer, when we’re called as bishop or Relief Society president, after the kids get into school, after we retire.
You don’t need an invitation before you start moving in the direction of your righteous goals. You don’t need to wait for permission to become the person you were designed to be. You don’t need to wait to be invited to serve in the Church.
We can sometimes waste years of our lives waiting to be chosen (see D&C 121:34–36). But that is a false premise. You are already chosen!

I felt like this part really spoke to me.  Procrastination is one of my problems, though I don’t actually say to myself, “I’ll do it later.”  My procrastination has been in the form that Elder Uchtdorf has described above, the kind that wants to wait for the “right moment” and the kind that feels like it needs permission to do or become or start. 

My procrastination has to do with writing.  I am a writer.  So often I delay starting my writing because I’m waiting for the right moment.  But what does the right moment look like and how will I know I’ve come to it?  I keep waiting for a moment when I will feel inspired.  It is particularly insidious when it comes to working on this blog because I want to be inspired as I write about the scriptures.   The weird thing is, I’ve learned by experience that inspiration happens more while I’m working on it and rather than when I’m thinking about working on it.  So I just have to show up and start studying and writing and then it comes.

I’ve also seen some of my procrastination in the form of feeling like I need permission from someone.  One of the things I want to do is write fiction, write fabulous novels.  But I feel like I need permission!  I don’t know who from.  Maybe it’s because I have this deep-down notion that writing fiction is play, not real work.  It makes me think that just like you need mom to call the school to so you can go somewhere else during school, I need someone to call the “work police” and tell them that I have permission to write fiction for work instead of getting hired by someone else.   Maybe I need to write myself out a permission slip.  (I eventually did this.  It felt very freeing.)

I like that President Uchtdorf says our personal goals can bring out the best in us.  (Of course, he makes the implicit assumption that these goals are righteous.)  When you consider the effort that goes into working toward goals, you can see he’s right.  What else besides a goal makes you wrestle with the natural man?  Good goals always involve repentance at some level or stage.  A good goal that speaks to you fires your imagination, giving you vision.  It requires confidence and faith.  It requires you to commit and act courageously.  It requires analysis of skills and leads to learning more skills.  It leads to problem-solving.  It disciplines you and builds your perseverance.  And even when we fail, we practice repentance and re-commitment if we try again.

At times in my life I have spent sleepless nights grappling with issues, worries, or personal sorrows. But no matter how dark the night, I am always encouraged by this thought: in the morning the sun will rise.
With every new day, a new dawn comes—not only for the earth but also for us. And with a new day comes a new start—a chance to begin again.

This view of the new day as the chance to begin trying again is a big thing that gives me hope.  I’ve lived a few months when I was depressed and felt that I had no hope of anything better.  When I’ve struggled with a bad habit for so long and failed so many times, it is easy to think that there is no hope of change and that the future will get worse and worse and I should just give up and drift as the current takes me.  I’ve learned to fight this by seeing each new day as a gift of a small time that I can concentrate my efforts in.  We learn from living the commandment of keeping the Sabbath Holy that it is possible to make one day different from every other day of the week, more focused on serving God.  So we can use that same principle during the week.  Each new day we can try again to break bad habits.  Also, taking it one day at a time helps me focus on the present moment rather than worrying about the future. 

Sometimes the thing that holds us back is fear. We might be afraid that we won’t succeed, that we will succeed, that we might be embarrassed, that success might change us, or that it might change the people we love.

I’ve feared all those things at one time or another.  When fears are paralyzing, I’ve found I have to write down what I’m afraid of and try to get to the root of what is bothering me.  (I have an example of how I do this in my post about confronting myfears of introducing my neighbors to the missionaries.

It’s usually not just one fear, it is a network of fear, or a pyramid of fear, fears stacked on top of each other.  You have to pin down the fear, drag it squealing out into the day, and then talk back to it before you can kill it.

Another thing we need to remember when it comes to setting goals is this: We almost certainly will fail—at least in the short term. But rather than be discouraged, we can be empowered because this understanding removes the pressure of being perfect right now. It acknowledges from the beginning that at one time or another, we may fall short. Knowing this up front takes away much of the surprise and discouragement of failure.
When we approach our goals this way, failure doesn’t have to limit us. Remember, even if we fail to reach our ultimate, desired destination right away, we will have made progress along the road that will lead to it.
And that matters—it means a lot.
Even though we might fall short of our finish line, just continuing the journey will make us greater than we were before.

Falling short and failure is a not an end destination.  It is merely a stage in our progression. 

When I apply this to myself about my writing process, I can understand perfectly well that my first draft is not going to be a masterpiece.  It’s going to be crud.  But I can learn from it and revise.  My first novel likewise is going to fall short as well, but I’ll learn from it and revise it and my next novel will be better (although the first draft can be crud all over again.)  I can allow myself to write badly at first so I can learn from it.  (I suppose I’ll have to write myself a permission slip for that too.  ;-))

An old proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”
There is something wonderful and hopeful about the word now. There is something empowering about the fact that if we choose to decide now, we can move forward at this very moment.
Now is the best time to start becoming the person we eventually want to be—not only 20 years from now but also for all eternity.

Sometimes it takes years for us to figure out that we really want what’s good for us.  And then we wish we’d started way earlier.  I’ve heard some converts wishing they’d found the gospel earlier in life.  I imagine we all have something like that. 

At least the present moment remains for making a beginning, right?

So what experiences have you had in which you learned more from the process than you did from the outcome?

3 comments:

Rozy Lass said...

You have my permission to write fiction! And believe me (and plenty of other writers), it is hard work. Thanks for all your thoughts. The computer analogy of Pres. Uchtdorf's is great. I'm going to do some mental and emotional decluttering and see if I can get things moving again.

Reid Litchfield said...

Permission granted--just don’t quit your blog. I really related to your comments about inspiration coming after you begin. I guess we have to open our mouths before we can expect them to be filled.

Michaela Stephens said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Rozy and Reid. I've got my permission slip I wrote for myself up on my wall for me to look at as I type away.

And Reid, I'll be working on my blogging at the same time, so juggling is the order of the day.