Saturday, June 27, 2009

Owl Near Aspen Grove

It might have been a hunch
That had me turn my head
Right when the specter glided by

And then I felt the silent
Wielding of her wings
And knew it wasn’t me

For my heart wasn’t beating
When the feathers
Ruffled past

I think she saw me all along,
And merely came to wish me
Pleasant dreams

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Limiting Factors

Many years ago when I was in junior high school, I decided I wanted to be on the track and field team and compete in the high jump. The gym coach made arrangements for me and I spent many hours practicing. I learned quickly that I could clear the bar better by jumping backwards and so I worked on that technique. I made quick progress at first as I strengthened my legs and learned a how to better control by jump. But then I hit a plateau and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get any higher. The lower part of my back kept hitting the bar. I tried different kinds of exercises and lifted more weights but no matter how strong or flexible I became, I remained limited by my lower back. We didn’t have anybody at the school to help me on my technique so I never improved. When basketball season came around, I gave up high jumping; and, as it turned out, I never returned to the sport.

I’ve come to believe that limiting factors - whether they be a high jumping technique or anything else - are much more important than many of us think. And yet we hardly ever do pay much attention to them. The truth is that we really don’t like to because it usually isn’t very pleasant. This is understandable because limiting factors are very often things in our lives that we don’t do well. We much prefer focusing on our strengths. It makes us feel better about ourselves. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking also keeps us stranded on plateaus. Sometimes we want very badly to get off these plateaus and do something more with our lives. When we seem unable to do so, we get frustrated. “Why can’t people see how good I am? We ask ourselves, never realizing that it isn’t our strengths that keep us back. It’s our weaknesses that do.

When we are young we tend to take people at face value. If someone looks smart or pretty or keeps a particular image we believe that it accurately represents them. Not realizing that we are only seeing one side – the side the person wants us to see – we sometimes assume that they have no negative traits at all. When, to our surprise, this person ends up, say, in prison, it completely surprises us. “That’s not the person I knew,” we tell ourselves. And this, of course, is not a lie. We never did thoroughly know that person. We would be a good deal wiser if we recognized this. We all have virtues. Everybody expects this. Why should we be surprised when we discover that we also have limitations?

I’ve watched a lot of basketball players through the years. One thing is common among almost all of the fairly good players - I mean players that are not quite good enough to make the team. They think the game is all about scoring and so they practice and practice their shooting and ignore other important parts of the game. Many of these individuals would have done much better to have learned to be more aggressive and be tougher defenders and rebounders. These skills are much more commonly the limiting factors among this group of players.

The truth is that we are quite good at ignoring our limiting factors. The most common way that we do this is by making excuses or by otherwise justifying our behavior. I know a bright manager who desires to move up the corporate ladder. He has a lot of excellent qualifications but has a habit of being too glib and at times condescending in his conversation. He realizes this but instead of trying to change behavior, he says that people are just like that where he is from and that he can’t help the way he is. “We all have our little hang-ups anyway,” he says, or so he has convinced himself.

Another reason we tend to ignore our limiting factors is because they are often tied to our habits or to things that make us comfortable. The example that comes most immediately to mind is our preference to relax instead of work, like our habit of watching just one television program that then leads to a second and so on until the entire evening is wasted. It is a tragedy the amount of life that is wasted in this way.

These are obvious examples, but what about gossiping? It is also a habit that keeps us stuck on plateaus. Very few habits so readily mark us as mediocre as habitual gossip. It is the hallmark of prideful virtue and self-righteousness. It automatically puts one, whether merited or not, in the camp of the complainers instead of among the few that can be trusted. It is a past-time of moral laziness.

Another very common limiting factor is the lack of knowledge. Take for instance an inexperienced farmer who decides to plant an acre of his favorite sweet corn in a field that was planted in wheat the year before. Unknown to the farmer are the thousands of hungry wireworms hidden in the soil that are eager to eat every corn root they can find. The farmer, with a bit more knowledge, could have learned that farming isn’t just a matter of planting, watering and harvesting. Losing a crop is a hard way to learn about limiting factors.

But the most serious kinds of limiting factors are those involving sin. One of the reasons that they are so serious is because sin tends to be a cascade to so many other limiting factors. Maybe we are kept back in our employment because we tend to be lazy occasionally. This, of course, is a sin against our employer. If we fail to overcome this habit it very often leads to complaining or gossiping in order to vindicate our poor performance. When this happens, it becomes all too easy to tell lies which then lead to even more serious problems. Even the smallest sins that are left to fester can be profoundly limiting.

But sins can also have a bright side. They can be overcome and changed into strengths. This is the message of the prophet Ether. Those that humble themselves, exercise faith in Christ and forsake their sins have the promise that their weakness will turn to strengths (see Ether 12:27). This is not always the case with other limiting factors.

Very often when we overcome a limiting factor, we progress. This isn’t necessarily because our weakness has become strength but because we have just removed so much dead weight that was holding us back. When weaknesses are removed by Christ, however, the promise is that not only will we have the dead weight removed but that we will gain a new strength. This can happen because we gain access to strength beyond ourselves.

One of the great examples in literature both of the limiting and strengthening nature of sin is the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. The honorable Reverend Dimmesdale, in a moment of passion lost his virtue with the married woman Hester Prynne. Unlike Hester, though, whose sin was readily visible in the child of their adulterous relationship, the child’s father, Reverend Dimmesdale, remained unknown. And yet, for all its obscurity, the sin had a profound effect upon him. He planned many times to announce his error publicly but was unable to. In a society that was intolerant of this sin, his life would have been completely ruined. Any hope that repentance can lead to a better life in this sort of society did not exist.

And so Dimmesdale’s sin festered and he considered himself the worst of humanity. In fact, his self-demeaning habits were so obvious that the citizens of Boston considered him a very saintly and pure man because of them. Yet his burden made him physically sick. His health was even more compromised because of his doctor (who, unknown to him, was also Hester’s husband seeking revenge).

Through all this, the citizens believed their Reverend Dimmesdale to be among the greatest men alive. The reader is made to know that it was because of his sin that he had become such a humble and compassionate man. And yet, in the end, it was his sin that also too his life. His sin was the major limiting factor in his life. And yet it was also an unfulfilled strength. It has been argued that without his sin, he never would have been such a great spiritual leader. Hester believed that he had paid for his sin many times over and that he need not carry the burden around any longer.

But Dimmesdale knew that he had not completely repented. When he finally mustered the resolve to announce what he had done publicly, it only came after a crisis of his faith and just before he died. He never gained any solace from all the good that he had done. A sin that truly could have been turned into strength ended up being his greatest limiting factor. In the end it killed him.

The world around us is filled with people and their limiting factors. This world includes us. Maybe we hesitate to consider this fact in the people we care about. But acknowledging weakness in others does not need to be judgmental. It can be a prelude to great service. Considering weaknesses in ourselves can be even less appealing. And yet we really only have two choices is this matter. We can continue ignoring them – and remain forever limited. Or we can become better. Nothing needs to hold us back. In fact, the sky’s the limit.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Spiritual Eutrophication

Eutrophication is an ecological problem. It occurs when there is an increase of nutrients in an ecosystem and plants grow excessively. Sometimes it’s hard to understand how this can be a problem. After all, growth is good and we want plants to be productive.

The problem is that growth does not always lead to productivity. Sometimes the things that are normally required for growth are so abundant that organisms fail to develop properly in the frenzy that can accompany maximal growth. Very often proper development requires that we turn off, or at least slow down, normal growth. In some cases proper development can only occur with periods of privation. Too much of a good thing is not always a good thing.

In order to understand this, it is important to keep in mind the difference between growth and development. Growth means getting bigger (or more abundant) and any change is only a change of degree. Development involves change of a different kind. A caterpillar, for example, after it emerges from an egg grows quite a bit, but in spite of all this growth it still looks like a caterpillar. In experiments using insect hormones that keep the caterpillar from becoming a cocoon, a butterfly is never formed. The insect just becomes a giant caterpillar. This might sound interesting, but for the caterpillar it is a disaster. It never gets to become a butterfly and reproduce – which is what caterpillars are supposed to do. Growth, by itself, fails the caterpillar of its potential. Development is also required, which happens when the caterpillar changes into a cocoon. During this period of its life, the insect utilizes energy that it has previously stored for this purpose. This period of maximal development is also a period of maximal privation. But without the privation, the caterpillar never reaches its potential.

The classic example of eutrophication is the increase in nitrogen and phosphorus that sometimes accumulates in lakes and ponds in agricultural areas. These chemicals are normally helpful to plants when applied in various forms as fertilizers. At times, however, they can be washed into nearby drainages and accumulate in standing bodies of water where they provide nutrients for algae. If there is enough of the nutrients, the algae grow excessively and consume most of the oxygen in the water. Other organisms such as fish and amphibians and the invertebrates that they eat, die because all of the oxygen has been used up by the algae.

Human beings can also create environments where too much growth occurs. This almost sounds heretical to even suggest such a thing, but it is true nonetheless. In our zeal to create maximally comfortable and productive environments for ourselves, we end up harming, or even killing, many things that are needed for our spiritual growth. This turns out to be a unique form of eutrophication. It is unique because the causal agent, as well as the object of harmful side effects, are one and the same - they are us. Because the harmful side effects are primarily spiritual, the problem can be called spiritual eutrophication.

Fulfilling the measure of our creation requires both spiritual growth and spiritual development. Together, this part of our lives is very sensitive to disturbances. Physical needs such a procuring food, shelter and medical care can easily occupy center stage of our lives. Emotional needs can, and often do, become priorities too. Our lives are very often so saturated with these immediately demanding needs that it’s understandable how spiritual needs can be forgotten, at least momentarily. It’s one thing, however, for a balanced life to find itself for a time focused on non-spiritual needs. It’s another thing altogether for non-spiritual needs to become the focus of our lives, even to the point of choking out the truly important and sustaining spiritual needs. Such a life, in the long run, will destroy its spirit just as too much algal growth in a lake will kill the other organisms needing oxygen.

Without doubt, consumerism, in one form or other, takes center stage of most people’s lives. Our commercial society is clearly a product of consumer priorities. It has so saturated our lives that we verily believe that we can resolve any problem - be it physical, emotional, or even spiritual - with money. We even plug in the allotted time into our day-planners for spiritual growth and believe that our spiritual needs have been covered.

But there is something inherently wrong about this assumption that growth is a universally good thing - whether it be physical, financial or spiritual. And this is where the distinction between spiritual growth and spiritual development becomes important.

Growth means more of the same thing. This doesn’t necessarily imply that it is easy. It can be quite difficult. But it is not the same thing as development, which involves a change in form. Spiritual growth can make us feel satisfied if we do nothing more than just attend more religious meetings. Or maybe it is manifest in making larger donations, or memorizing more scriptures. These things are, of course, worthy things to do. But they are usually fueled by the idea that growth is the ne plus ultra of our existence. We all too often make the assumption that our spiritual “growth” is tied up with our own personal worth - or with the things we have achieved. This is the mistake Jesus was teaching against when He said that the widow contributing her mite to the temple treasury had contributed more than the other donors.

Spiritual development, on the other hand, cannot be so easily handled. It is no more monopolized by visible and fully-churched religionists than is wisdom monopolized by Ph.D.’s. The reason is that the way to spiritual development leads through privation. Of course, not all kinds of privation have to be monetary or physical. There are a lot of ways it can happen. But there is a single word that includes them all. It is sacrifice. It is sacrifice that is the means to spiritual development - not a sacrifice that we decide on ourselves - but sacrifice that we must yield to. It has to be a sacrifice that is offered to us from God and the measure is simple - will we yield to His will and not our own? Full spiritual development is achieved when we have successfully yielded ourselves to all of the trials that God deems necessary for us.

One of the dangers of a lopsided spiritual growth is that it can lead to pride. And too much pride usually offends others. Sadly, when there is an abundance of pride in a congregation, many individuals needing spiritual nourishment decide not to associate with the church and fail to participate in saving ordinances. This is one of the most obvious examples of spiritual eutrophication, but there are many others.

Spiritual growth can be an offering to God. No doubt He is pleased when we commit more to Him. But if we are not careful, we can let the fertilizers of faith, instead of the true source of faith, blind us to - even choke out - the greater needs of the spirit, like algae killing fish. We then fail to see that it is the sun that is the ultimate source of life and not anything that we might contrive to offer. In the end we may never mature spiritually if we fail to see this, for spiritual maturity requires spiritual development. Coming to God means that we leave the world behind. It was never meant to be a trophy.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Alicia's Philosophy

I was feeling a bit philosophical over breakfast the other day and so I decided to ask my handicapped daughter Alicia a probing question.

“Do you like life?” I asked.

“Yes, Daddy,” was her reply between spoonfuls of cereal. Then she, sensing my pensive mood, put on a thoughtful expression of her own and asked me a question.

“Daddy,” she asked, “do you like Fruit Loops?”