I was up in Lincoln on Sunday, where I gave the following talk. It ended up using my post on Notre Dame as a launching point to discuss broader issues, so don’t turn away just because you’ve read the first bit already. I think it turned out quite well. One of my better talks; they don’t all come together as nicely as this one did.
About 13 years ago, Denisa woke me up from a nap. Her face was white. Shocked. “The Cabin burned down,” she told me. I had no way to really process what she was saying. Ever since I could remember, my family had a cabin up in the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. It was very much a communal affair. It belonged to my grandparents, and the entire family would head there en masse for holidays and vacations. Growing up, some of my happiest memories are spending a week each summer with my cousins up at that cabin, watching movies, playing games, going fishing, and just having a blast.
When I was in college, I was only about an hour away from the cabin. (Much closer than I’d been when I lived in Pennsylvania.) Denisa and I would go up regularly, but again it was almost always with family. My grandparents. My cousins. My aunts and uncles. Going to the Cabin on your own just felt . . . wrong. Like an amusement park where none of the rides are running. Year after year, the Cabin never really changed. It had always been there, and it always would be.
Until it wasn’t.
We never figured out exactly what happened. The nearest guess is my grandfather had left some rags in a bucket on the front porch. He’d been applying some stain with them, and he left them outside when he drove off. They must have spontaneously combusted in the sunlight. That initial fire caught the stairs on fire, and the cabin, being a cabin, was quickly engulfed. It was all gone. The film collection. The family pictures. The embodiment of all those years of fun.
I still sometimes think about it. Think about what it would have been like if I’d been there when those rags combusted. How big of a window did we have to stop the fire from happening? I think about the different rooms and things inside them that I loved, each of them burning, one after another. It’s incredibly sad to me. Yes, we rebuilt the Cabin, and when we did we said we’d make it “even better than before.” It’s a beautiful new building, but it’ll never be better than the original for me. The original was my childhood. It was Star Wars: A New Hope. The new one is the prequels. (Well, maybe it’s Rogue One. Let’s not get carried away here.)
It’s probably natural that one of my first thoughts when I watched Notre Dame burn on television was of the Cabin and all those nightmares around it. I’d been to Notre Dame twice, once in high school on a marching band trip, and once a few years ago with my family. I’m a bit of a cathedral junkie. Any city I go to in Europe, I have to seek them out, just to appreciate the sort of effort and craft that went into them. Seeing the aftermath is heartbreaking, though I’m so glad the entire building wasn’t lost. Hearing Macron say they’ll rebuild it “better than ever” definitely reminds me of my family’s goals after the fire, along with the inevitable conclusion that it can’t be better than the original, because the original was the original. There’s no need to be “better,” though we say it to try and comfort ourselves. To feel like there wasn’t a loss. That we’ll make things right again.
Even though we can’t.
When a loss happens in our life, whether it’s something physical like a building or emotional like a friendship, that loss leaves marks on us. The bigger the loss, the bigger the marks. It doesn’t mean we’ll never be happy again, or things won’t ever be right, but it does mean they’ll always be different. I think it’s important to recognize that and to give yourself time to process it.
The other thing I was reminded of in those flames was watching the Twin Towers burn on 9/11. The comparison is inevitable for me, since that event had such an impact on me as well. Here I was again, watching footage of a place I knew. A world icon in flames.
I remember in the aftermath of 9/11, so many people didn’t know quite how to respond to it. I was certainly one of those people. It was too big for my mind to really wrap around it. I was in college at the time, and I went to classes the next day. The professor chose to use the event as a lecture topic. I’m sure he was trying to deal with it, just as I was, and perhaps his efforts helped some. All I know is that for me, they were the exact wrong approach. He was discussing the symbolism of the Twin Towers. Picking apart why the terrorists had chosen those buildings. What it all meant.
I went back to my apartment and dropped his class that afternoon. I had no desire right then to use that tragedy as a discussion topic. That was a city I knew and loved. A city I’d grown up with. I had friends who had been around the World Trade Center that day. Family members who were close enough that I was worried if they were okay, and relieved to find out they were. I can talk about the events now, of course. I’ve had the time I needed to process it all. But I still remember the anger I felt sitting in class that day as the professor blithely used all of what had happened as a way to discuss something so trivial (to me that day) as Flaneur literature.
In the aftermath of Notre Dame, I’ve seen some of the same things happening. I saw articles written just hours later talking about how we all could use that loss to understand other things more acutely. How we were supposed to feel or think or cope. I couldn’t bring myself to read those articles, because to me, it would be as if Denisa had woken me from my nap that day thirteen years ago and said, “The Cabin burned down. We need to remember how much it inspired us, and how its loss will bring us to new heights in the future.”
When I encounter loss, I don’t need explanation or justification. I need time to let myself be sad. I don’t need people telling me “Cathedrals have burned down before” or “It was only a building” or “It could have been so much worse” or “There are so many other things in the world to be sad about.” I need people to be quiet. There will be time for all that self-reflection and philosophy later. But it’s okay to be sad for a while. To feel for what’s gone. To recognize that things will never be the same.
A tree grows organically. It encounters trials throughout its life. Wind storms. Ice storms. High winds. They affect what the tree looks like. How it twists and what limbs thrive. At the end of all those storms, it still looks like a tree, but it’s a different tree than it would have been without the storms. It might be stronger. It might be weaker. But it’s inevitably different.
This is all a prelude to set the stage that explains how I felt when I read the assigned topic for this month’s high council talks. Elder Jack N. Gerard spoke last October of the importance of doing important things now. Not tomorrow or the day after.
If someone comes back from Paris, there’s a few touristy things you’re almost required by law to do. I think toward the top of everyone’s list would be going up the Eiffel Tower and going to Notre Dame. They’re two of the activities I did on my first trip to Paris, back in high school. And when Denisa and I took our family to the city about five years ago, we went all over the place. We saw the Louvre. We strolled through the city. We went to outdoor parks and palaces. But while we visited the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, we never went up, and we never went in.
In hindsight, these seems like a serious mistake, especially in light of the fact that the cathedral will never be able to be visited the same way again. And now that it’s been a while since the trip, I find myself wondering why in the world we would have traveled halfway around the world, only to stop just shy of actually experiencing everything we’d planned on seeing. As I’ve reflected on this and talked it over with Denisa, I came up with a few reasons.
First off, we were very busy. I know that seems like a silly excuse now, but I’m not kidding when I say we were really going at breakneck speed through the city those three days. We had so much we wanted to do and see, we never thought about prioritizing for the things we assumed we’d do no matter what. If you ask New Yorkers to raise their hand if they’ve been to the Statue of Liberty, chances are a slew of people will keep their hands down. Why don’t people go to see the iconic landmarks right in their backyards? I think a lot of it is for the same reason. You always just sort of assume you’ll get around to it, and so you let other things bump it down the priority list. It’s not that we didn’t visit either the tower or the cathedral, but in both cases when we went, the lines were long. Longer than we decided at the time was worth trying to fight with three tired kids.
But I can’t pass it all off on being unlucky with line length. You’re able to reserve a spot at the Eiffel Tower months in advance. I forgot to do it ahead of time, assuming there would be plenty of spots open when we walked up to it. There weren’t. And our apartment was literally less than a hundred yards from the cathedral. We passed by it many times when there were lines that weren’t too bad. But we just kept bumping it back until the last minute, and by then of course it was too late.
Separated from the actual trip now by time and space, it’s easy for me to look at it all and break it down into fundamentals. We’d traveled halfway across the world and spent thousands of dollars to get our family to the city in the first place. What was another half hour of waiting in line and whatever donation it would have cost to visit the cathedral? We’d done everything, but we’d stopped just short of the desired goal, letting ourselves get distracted by other interests.
In my spare time, I write novels. I’m three quarters of the way through the first draft of my eighteenth right now. But I didn’t learn how to write a book all at once. One of the first steps in my writing career happened in high school, when I was introduced to the five paragraph essay.
It’s not an earth shattering concept. When you’re given a writing prompt, you use a pre-specified format to answer it. Five paragraphs. One for an introduction, where you briefly mention three arguments you’re going to use to prove your point. Then you have one paragraph per argument (given in the same order you first introduced them), and you finish everything off with a final paragraph devoted to a conclusion.
There’s a lot to be learned from that basic formula. First and foremost is the importance of being able to have a single goal and break that goal into smaller pieces, all related to that same goal. The introduction of your essay lays out the roadmap you’re going to follow to reach your final destination: proving your argument. But at no point in time does any one of those smaller goals supplant your overarching objective.
I see this principle at work in my life all the time. For example, I work at the University of Maine at Farmington. Students head to college for a variety of reasons. For some, it seems to be an extension of high school, simply the next step in the “things everybody does” roadmap of life. And so they spend their time “going to college.” Playing games. Sleeping through classes. The only real objective is to eventually be able to graduate, and some even begin to select coursework and majors to make that goal simpler. But if all you do is get a degree without a plan for how to apply that degree, then you’ve only saddled yourself with mounds of debt.
The ones who tend to succeed in life are the ones who remember college is only a means to an end. You go to college because you want to get a job. That goal might be because you want to support a family, be financially independent, or you just have always dreamed of becoming a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. All of those are excellent goals, but you have to remember that graduating from college is just a step along the way to those goals. It’s a paragraph supporting your thesis.
I’ve been using a lot of writing and education analogies, so let me switch things up to try and connect to some of the rest of you. In sports, teams have an overarching goal: win the Superbowl or the World Series. In order to achieve that goal, several steps have to be met along the way. Individual games are important, but not the only important thing. Often a team will hold back its best players or spell them out because they realize that short term benefits can come at the expense of those long term goals.
In the Book of Mormon, Lehi’s family had a goal when they left Jerusalem. They wanted to be protected and to live a happy life. But there were some significant challenges to that goal. Jerusalem is in the middle of a largely barren wilderness, full of dangers and an environment inhospitable to life. To help them navigate that wilderness, they were given the Liahona, a “round ball of curious workmanship” that directed them which way to go in their journeys. It worked as long as Lehi’s family was righteous, and stopped working when they weren’t. But it would have been a mistake for the family if they ever started simply focusing on getting the Liahona to work, like trying to keep a television in working order, but never watching any programs on it.
Elder Gerard said, “We live in a world of information overload, dominated by ever-increasing distractions that make it more and more difficult to sort through the commotion of this life and focus on things of eternal worth. Our daily lives are bombarded with attention-grabbing headlines, served up by rapidly changing technologies. Unless we take the time to reflect, we may not realize the impact of this fast-paced environment on our daily lives and the choices we make. We may find our lives consumed with bursts of information packaged in memes, videos, and glaring headlines. Although interesting and entertaining, most of these have little to do with our eternal progress, and yet they shape the way we view our mortal experience.”
Satan would like nothing more than for us to lose sight of the overarching goal we each should have: obtaining eternal life. And to get us to forget that goal, he’ll try just about anything. One of his best substitutions is to get us to focus all our efforts on a sub goal instead of the main goal. To focus on the college, not the career. The single game, not the Superbowl. The Liahona, not the destination. When it’s phrased like that, you might think it’s preposterous. Who would do something like that when it comes to eternal life? This isn’t just visiting Notre Dame. It’s my salvation on the line.
And yet I have to fight against it all the time. Case in point. I have a job. It’s vital to the success of my family. We need money to be able to have a place to stay, food to eat, and clothes to wear. But sometimes it’s too tempting to let the needs of my job overpower the needs of my family. To become so focused on doing the things my employer wants me to get done that it all comes at the expense of the reason I’m working in the first place. This isn’t to say there aren’t times that you have to bear down and get a bunch of extra work done in order to meet deadlines, but rather that it’s important to remember that job is a means to the end, and not the end itself.
Another example. One of the reasons Denisa and I got married was to have a family. But we’ve both tried very hard to keep the focus of our marriage centered on each other without shifting that focus solely to our children. Why? Because I don’t want there to come a day when my last child moves out of the house and I look at this woman I’m married to and wonder why in the world we’re still together, now that the kids are gone. We share a common goal for now of raising our three children and launching them off into the world to lead successful lives of their own, but that’s still just a single paragraph in the overarching essay that is our marriage. It doesn’t trump our relationship to each other, nor should it.
An example from church: it can be so easy sometimes to slip into a mindset where the current calling we have is the most important calling in the church. Where everything else exists to make sure that our calling can prosper, whether that’s being the Scout leader, Primary President, or Elders Quroum President. Activities run by those callings take on extra meaning. After all, “Adam fell that men might be, and men are, that they might have a successful ward barbecue.”
I love how much church leaders have been emphasizing a shift to a home-centered church. A reminder that much of the structure of the church exists to help strengthen families and help families help each other come closer to Christ. We should remind ourselves that church activities are there to support the thesis of a strong family. Some people will use those activities to meet that goal. Some won’t. And that’s okay.
Several years ago, President Oaks gave a talk he called “Good, Better, Best.” He referred to it again this past General Conference. In it, he said, “Just because something is good is not a sufficient reason for doing it. The number of good things we can do far exceeds the time available to accomplish them. Some things are better than good, and these are the things that should command priority attention in our lives.” He continued, “As we consider various choices, we should remember that it is not enough that something is good. Other choices are better, and still others are best. Even though a particular choice is more costly, its far greater value may make it the best choice of all.”
If you read the entirety of his talk, I think the message behind it is spot on. But I feel like often we end up remembering nothing more than that “Good, Better, Best” maxim, and sometimes, the “best” is the enemy of the “good.” In other words, in our effort to achieve nothing but the best, we can end up getting nothing done at all. For example, my wife is one of the best cleaners I know. If there’s a messy room somewhere in the world, and you want that room to be cleaned thoroughly to the point that it’s spotless, then I would put Denisa in charge of the operations. She finds areas of a room that are still dirty that my brain can’t even comprehend. If you want the best cleaning job you can get, turn to her.
There are many times that I have no chance of cleaning my house to Denisa standards, and it’s easy at times to feel like since I can’t clean it the best I could clean it, I might as well not even bother cleaning it at all. The same phenomenon happens when I’m writing. I’ll be trying to make my way through a chapter, and my internal editor will sit there taking pot shots at everything I’ve written, pointing out the flaws and the weaknesses. It’s tempting to just stop writing altogether, or to stop myself from moving forward to instead work on crafting the best sentences I can, each and every time.
Experience has taught me, however, that if I focus on just writing the best sentences, I never actually finish a book. Not a good book, not a better book, and certainly not the best book. I’ve also learned that telling Denisa I didn’t clean the house at all because I knew I didn’t have time to clean it to her standard isn’t going to get me far in the “Husband excuses” department.
I think most people can recognize my mistakes in those specific examples, but I worry we lose sight of that principle in our discussion of “good/better/best” decisions in our life. The problem is we each have this ideal person in our head. The person who goes through life only ever making the best decisions, and those best decisions are always straightforward. They spend their time making dinner for the needy, visiting the sick, doing service for their neighbors, keeping their house in perfect order, providing for all their family’s needs, becoming well-rounded individuals, and always making award winning meals that are the envy of the town.
But that ideal person in our head has none of the problems and challenges we face every day. He doesn’t get tired or over stressed. She doesn’t wake up with a full slate of obligations: errands to run, kids to help with school work, and church callings to fulfill. That ideal person faces a series of completely isolated decisions and can ask themself what the best choice is in each of those instances. And then we compare each of our much more complicated decisions with those ideals. Is it any wonder we find ourselves continually wanting?
Sometimes the best decision is to sit at home and watch Netflix. Sometimes it’s to read your scriptures. The “best” decision is going to vary for each person and each situation. I don’t mean for this talk to feel like it’s an overwhelming challenge, just as I don’t believe God wants us to feel like there’s no hope for us to ever do everything right.
President Nelson taught, “If we are to have any hope of sifting through the myriad of voices and the philosophies of men that attack truth, we must learn to receive revelation.” We must learn to rely on the Spirit of Truth, which “the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him.” And we need to recognize that revelation can and will tell different people to do different things in similar situations. Sometimes it doesn’t always make sense, but someone else’s directions don’t need to make sense to us. They’re not for us.
As the saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now. I can’t go back to Notre Dame. I can’t go back to my family’s Cabin. Not the way they were. But I can choose to try to avoid those situations in the future. On this past trip to visit my wife’s family in Europe, we took the kids to Krakow. And one evening, we went for a walk through the city, enjoying the nightlife and the ambiance of an Eastern European city in the dark. Toward the end of it, I pulled the kids over to the side of the main square and told them to stand there and just appreciate it. Really live in the moment. Acknowledge it for what it is.
It’s a mental trick I’ve used in other situations as well. Sometimes when I’m feeling overwhelmed by a busy household full of kids and all the duties that go along with them, I try to picture myself in the future, looking back at this time in my life. I pretend I’m able to let that future me time travel back to where I am now. Believe it or not, that typically helps me appreciate what I have in the present and cope with it all quite a bit better.
May we all strive to find out what God would have us focus on, and then put all our efforts on following through with those goals. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.