I spoke this Sunday in Belfast, though I had to give a really truncated version of this talk, since I was crunched on time during the meeting. Not too happy with how the live version ended up, so I’m at least somewhat relieved to be able to post the full text of my prepared remarks here. I tried to take a more practical approach this time, discussing how I personally apply Gospel principles to be happier in my life.
Weltschmerz, literally translated “World pain,” is used in German to describe a feeling of world-weariness and melancholy. It was specifically coined in the 1800s to refer to the sadness of people who feel the world will never meet its potential due to the abundance of pain and evil in the world. It was a concept that was embraced at first by Romantic period authors like Byron, Blake, and Wilde, though it also came to be mocked as well, as people criticized the complaint, saying that people who bemoaned weltschmerz were just being overly sensitive.
In many ways, that’s a contrast that continues today in many different realms. We hear Weltschmerz expressed when people bear their testimonies and talk of how evil the world has become, is becoming, or has always been. It extends beyond the general complaint of the state of the world and transforms into smaller complaints. Kircheschmerz, or church-pain, would be the feeling of being overcome by the awful state of the church. Politikerschmerz, or political-pain, would be the feeling of being overcome by the awful state of politics. Patriotenschmerz, or patriots-pain, is the feeling the rest of the country has when they look at their future prospects for Super Bowl victories.
In the end, perhaps the worst element of any of these schmerzes is the temptation they bring with them to feel helpless. To feel like no matter what you do, this terrible state of being will continue. While that might be amusing enough to think of when people outside New England are grousing about the Patriots, it’s potentially much more toxic when it’s about things that matter from an eternal perspective. (Sorry, Patriots fans. Super Bowl victories just don’t quite rate up there.)
Satan would love nothing better than for us to throw in the towel and feel helpless about any number of things in the world. He knows that nothing has quite the same success rate as getting people to not bother to even try to solve a problem. Even if the odds of success are slim, they’re still better than doing nothing.
In his talk this past October, Elder Uchtdorf offers three actions we can take to combat the feelings of hopelessness that threaten to overwhelm us at times. “There is a solution to the emptiness, vanity, and Weltschmerz of life. There is a solution to even the deepest hopelessness and discouragement you might feel. This hope is found in the transformative power of the gospel of Jesus Christ and in the Savior’s redemptive power to heal us of our soul-sickness. “I am come,” Jesus declared, “that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
We achieve that abundant life not by focusing on our own needs or on our own achievements but by becoming true disciples of Jesus Christ—by following in His ways and engaging in His work. We find the abundant life by forgetting ourselves and engaging in the great cause of Christ. And what is the cause of Christ? It is to believe in Him, love as He loved, and do as He did.”
So what does that look like in practice? Sometimes I feel like general conference talks and talks in church as a whole dwell on abstract ideas and teachings, leaving the personal application to the individual. Today, I’d like to talk about the times Elder Uchtdorf’s concept of believing, loving, and doing have brought me greater happiness in life and helped me develop a better relationship with God.
First, there have been times in my life I have chosen to believe. We live in a world where skepticism abounds. People clamor for proof, while at the same time undercutting practically any method we have to prove anything. Photographic evidence is easily disbelieved because Photoshopping is an easy enough task. Videos can be doctored with an app. Experts are brought in to discuss how memories can be manipulated. The scientific method is called into question, even when massive amounts of data is there to back it up.
These days, if you want a reason to disbelieve something, you can pick any one you want. But the same applies to belief, it seems. Relativism abounds. I can believe what I want, and you can believe what you want, as long as my beliefs don’t harm you, and your beliefs don’t harm me. And one of the most difficult things about this argument is how benign it seems on the surface. Who wouldn’t agree with something as simple as that?
Except, of course, it’s not that simple. There’s a fair bit of groupthink at play in the world today as well. Groupthink, if you’re not familiar with the term, is the tendency of people who belong to a group to end up encouraging each other to believe a certain way while at the same time discouraging others from believing anything that contradicts that belief.
Pick any “hot button” topic that’s being debated today, and you’ll see these arguments raging on both sides of the debate. Accusations of group think. Claims of faulty science. Personal attacks. It gets to the point that you’d think there’s no real way of ever determining what’s true. We’ll call it Glaubenschmerz. Belief pain. And you might be tempted to think it’s a recent phenomenon.
But then you read in Joseph Smith History. “My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.
10 In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
11 While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
12 Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.”
These wars of words have happened before, and they will happen again. I try to keep in mind one simple principle. It doesn’t just matter that you believe. It matters what you believe in. Some would have you think the Gospel is just another instance of groupthink. That the promptings of the Spirit are nothing more than chemicals being released into your brain. You can talk to people who will spin your head in circles with their arguments, but in the end, they cannot escape one simple truth.
Either God exists, or He does not. Like Joseph Smith, I have prayed. I didn’t see a vision in response to that prayer, but it was answered nonetheless. One time that sticks out in my memory happened while I was in the Missionary Training Center. I’d decided to spend the next two years of my life focused only on sharing the Gospel, and I found myself questioning whether that was the sort of thing I was cut out for. I was particularly doubtful that someone like me–someone who liked to have fun and has a hard time sometimes keeping things serious–could ever do something so somber, all day, every day.
I felt overwhelmed and unfit for the task at hand. And one evening, I spent a long time praying, asking God what I’d need to do to change about myself to get through those two years. The answer I got surprised me. I felt an overpowering sensation of love and acceptance. That I hadn’t been called despite my personality, but rather because of it. I wasn’t to go to Germany to be the best cookie cutter missionary I could be, as similar to everyone else as possible, but to be the best missionary I could be. Unique and singular. At the same time, I felt a clear impression that God knew who I was better than I knew myself. That He knew me before I came to earth, and that the person I am now and the intelligence I was then were one and the same. That experience with prayer was a high point during my time at the MTC, and it’s stayed with me since then.
Sometimes in the church we try to use logic and facts to convince others of the truth of our faith. If the Book of Mormon is true, then Joseph Smith had to be a prophet. And we scour the book to find evidences of its truthfulness. Chiasmus. Word use. Translation quirks. It’s an understandable desire: we don’t just want to believe. We want to know. And there are plenty of times that knowledge feels tantalizingly close. If we could just reason things through a little differently, or if only our knowledge were a bit more complete in a few areas. But the sword of logic cuts both ways, and the more we grow to depend on those arguments, the more susceptible we are to the counterarguments those who are against the church may raise. There are plenty of them to be found.
As President Benson said, “Every man eventually is backed up to the wall of faith, and there he must make his stand.” For me, the wall of my faith rests on the answers to prayers like the one I received in the MTC. I choose to believe even when my faith is questioned, because I have had enough experience with prayer to be able to state without doubt, I know God lives, and I know He loves us. I know prayer works, just as I know I love my wife and children. It isn’t based on logic or reason. It’s more than that.
Second, there have been times in my life I have chosen to love. This isn’t something that comes as easily for me. I’m good at loving those I’m already close to, but to be blunt, I have problems being compassionate to strangers on an individual basis. My mind jumps too quickly to what choices they might have made in their lives that cause them problems today. To how I would have done things differently, or how everyone needs to learn from their mistakes.
Of course, when it comes time to explain my own problems and those of my friends, it’s easy to see nuances and complexities. How terribly tangled life can be, and how inevitable some of those mistakes proved. It’s much the same as with bad drivers on the road. Everyone swears their surrounded by people with the driving skill of a poorly trained chimpanzee, but no one’s willing to admit they make more than a few mistakes of their own when their behind the wheel.
Elder Uchtdorf states, “The scriptures reveal that the more we love God and His children, the happier we become. The love Jesus spoke about, however, isn’t a gift-card, throwaway, move-on-to-other-things love. It isn’t a love that is spoken of and then forgotten. It is not a “let me know if there is anything I can do” sort of love. The love God speaks of is the kind that enters our hearts when we awake in the morning, stays with us throughout the day, and swells in our hearts as we give voice to our prayers of gratitude at evening’s end.
This is the inexpressible love Heavenly Father has for us.
It is this endless compassion that allows us to more clearly see others for who they are. Through the lens of pure love, we see immortal beings of infinite potential and worth and beloved sons and daughters of Almighty God.
Once we see through that lens, we cannot discount, disregard, or discriminate against anyone.”
I’m trying to get more of that love. To be able to see individuals without discounting or disregarding their troubles. In the meantime, one area where I have chosen to love is when it comes to discrimination. Whether it’s for race, religion, political persuasion, gender, sexuality, or any other reason, I try to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. I struggle on an individual level to see past a single person’s life choices, but I’d like to think I do better when it comes time to making decisions and expressing positions on laws and the treatment of people as a whole. I’d like to think many in my religion follow suit, though I am disappointed at times in that hope. That’s when I remind myself how many in this church do so much better than I do at loving on an individual level.
We all have strengths and weaknesses we need to overcome, and I hope and pray we all continue to strive to do so.
Third, there have been times in my life I have chosen to do. There have been plenty of times I’ve gotten discouraged over the years, for a variety of different reasons. Feeling like I have too much to do, or feeling like I have to little to really engage with. Troubles with my kids at school, problems with coworkers, news on a national level, disagreements over church activities. While the cause of the discouragement has changed in so many different ways, the result (in me at least) is often uniform: when I get discouraged, I start feeling like it might be better just to stop trying. It seems like nothing I could possibly do could make a difference, so why should I bother doing anything at all?
Of course, this is antithetical to the Gospel and to common sense. Doing nothing is the only way to guarantee nothing will be done. But it’s one thing to have a handy saying like that, but it’s another to find ways to actually put it into practice. With that in mind, here are a couple of real-world ways I motivate myself to get going when I’m tempted to stay still. Maybe they could help some of you in similar situations.
First, it’s helpful for me to set overarching goals of things I want to achieve. These days, it often feels like I have a goal for everything. How many times I want to floss each month. When I want to write in my journal. How long I want to read my scriptures each day. How many words I want to write of my current novel each day. But I don’t come to these goals randomly. I look at my life and decide what’s important. Where I want to be focusing my time. And then I make goals that help me meet this big priorities.
This wasn’t always the case. I managed to coast through nineteen years of life goal free, until one day I was challenged in the MTC to set some personal goals. At the time, I thought it was silly. I’d gotten by just fine without goals for so long, why should I change things up? They had a quote that helped put it in context for me. In 1970, Thomas S. Monson said, “When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates.”
For me, setting goals is a way of measuring the hard-to-measure. For example, I like to write. When I was starting out in college, I knew I wanted to write novels, but I had no idea how to actually finish one. In the end, I broke it down to a daily goal of 500 words. These days, I’ve upped that to 1,000, and I’ve managed to finish 17 books that way. Two are professionally published, and a third is under contract as well.
Second, so much of actually doing something comes down to starting. When you sit down to write a new story, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of an empty page with a blinking cursor. When I know I have a new project I need to start, whether it’s a home renovation, a new endeavor at work, or a family goal, I often find myself caught at the beginning, feeling like I’ll never be able finish something so monumental. But if I can just start doing something connected to the job–anything small, even–then that’s enough to get me over that initial speed bump, and I’m off and running.
With writing, that usually means I stop worrying about what to write and just start writing about anything, instead. I’ll start filling the page up with brainstorming, or with paragraphs all about how frustrating it is to not be able to think about what to write about. And as the page fills up with text, suddenly it’s no longer that intimidating. Somehow in the process of doing, it all becomes easier.
With bigger jobs, sometimes it takes more than the usual approach. Whenever I’m in panic mode, I’ll turn to lists. My kids can vouch for how often they’ll see me take out a scrap of paper and jot down the things I need to get done on a Saturday. I will write down literally everything I can think of to do, from chores around the house to simple things like eating breakfast, brushing my teeth, or taking a shower. I take all the anxiety around how overwhelmed I feel, and I put it down on paper where I can see it, number it, and visualize it easily. Once that’s done, I just start getting things off the list. Who knew eating breakfast can make you feel so successful? But just like with the empty page filling with words, something about seeing those items getting crossed off motivates me to move on to the harder tasks.
The last approach I use to get myself into gear is something I really only trot out when I’m finding myself struggling with a problem on a long term basis. I’ll have tried lists. Tried goals. Tried just trying to begin. But when none of that is proving effective, I’ll make my goals and my struggle public.
Throughout my life, I have struggled with my weight. Not as much as some, but certainly to the point that I was unhappy with how I looked, and how it was affecting my health. When I crossed the line into being officially obese, I went on a diet to get back to simply “overweight,” but I still stayed ensconced there for many years. At the same time, one of my favorite ways to reduce stress has always been eating and baking. I love making brownies almost as much as I love eating them. Other people have their coffee or their daily run. I had my evening ice cream. It didn’t take a genius to guess my weight problem and my eating habit might be connected somehow.
It seems obvious now, but at the time, I was also trying lots of different things to feel better. I started exercising regularly and taking a multivitamin. Sometimes we’re really attached to the low hanging fruit, and so we’ll try to pick all the harder to reach thing first, just so we can hold on to our favorites. But one morning a couple of years ago, the thought came to me as clear as revelation: I needed to give up sugar, and if I did, I would feel better.
This was not a piece of divine inspiration I wanted to pay any attention to. In fact, I really wanted it to be wrong. But at the same time, I’ve had enough practice with inspiration to recognize when something has real power behind it. I felt strongly that for me, sugar was holding me back. When I told my wife my new goal–to stop eating processed sugar for at least a month and a half–she thought I might be going crazy. Not because she thought it was a bad idea, but because it was so out of character for me, and it wasn’t something I’d ever discussed with anyone before.
I knew I was going to need more help than that, however. One of the reasons the whole idea stuck with me so much was the simple fact that the first thought I had after I came up with the goal was “I could never do that. That’s too hard.” The next thought was, how ridiculous is that? I’m stronger than sugar.”
So to make it more likely that I’d actually follow through with my new goal, I made it as public as possible. I wrote about it on Facebook. I blogged about it. I told all my friends. I made it so that everyone who knew me knew this was an important goal for me. At that point, suddenly everywhere I went, people were asking me about it. Encouraging me to keep at it. The first week or two were pretty rough, but I got through them with the help of my friends and family.
Elder Uchtdorf notes, “In the Savior’s work, it is often by small and simple means that “great things [are] brought to pass.”
We know that it requires repetitive practice to become good at anything. Whether it’s playing the clarinet, kicking a ball into a net, repairing a car, or even flying an airplane, it is through practicing that we may become better and better.
The organization our Savior created on earth—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—helps us to do just that. It offers a place to practice living the way He taught and blessing others the way He did.”
Satan would have us all be discouraged. Overwhelmed by Weltschmerz and the other pains of the world. When we’re focused only on our problems and not on potential solutions, it’s just as if we never tried any solutions at all. I try to remember that we didn’t come to this world to solve all the problems and figure it all out before we die. We came to struggle and to learn and to grow. When I’m faced with tough times and discouraging news or an overwhelming workload, I try to keep that in mind, even though sometimes that’s more difficult than others.
If we put Elder Uchtdorf’s advice to work, there’s a formula to deal with those difficulties. Believe. Love. Do. As Christ said in John 16:33, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” I’ve tried to offer you some of the approaches I’ve used to put the Believe, Love, Do advice to work. Some of them might not work as well for you. Some of them might not work at all. But I know that as we turn to God and ask Him how best to handle our problems, we will receive an answer. It might not always make sense in the middle of the moment, but when I’ve followed those answers, they have never led me down the wrong path. I bear testimony of this in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.