Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Life Lesson from Grandpa Anderson

This is my grandpa, Reed Anderson.

I've written about him before. He's one of the best men I've ever known, and in a lot of ways I try to model my life after the way he lived. If he were still alive he'd be 100 years old today.

I'm kind of a sentimental person, and I often get caught up in nostalgic day-dreamings. Today was no different. As I was walking across campus to teach my technical writing class, I got to thinking about Grandpa and some of my most memorable, well, memories of him. Had we but the world enough and time I'd write about them at some length. Unfortunately there's grading to be done and a dissertation to write and promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and so on.

But I want to briefly recount a short anecdote about Grandpa that has had an indelible impact on my life. In fact, it's not even really an anecdote, but rather something that Grandma said about him on the night we celebrated their 50 year anniversary in 1996. I mention the year to highlight that I was only 10 years old at the time. I think I can honestly say that this was one of the most impactful nights of my life because of what Grandma said.

But first a few pictures of Grandma and Grandpa from around the time of their wedding (thanks to Family Search):

Engagement photo (Grandpa was in the Navy in WWII)
Wedding - June 1946


That night, after holding a reception for friends and family to celebrate their 50 years of marriage, both Grandma and Grandpa took some time to say a few words reminiscing about their life together. I don't remember what Grandpa said, or much of anything else Grandma said beyond one sentence. I may be paraphrasing a little (I was only 10 at the time after all), but as I remember it, Grandma said:

"In 50 years of marriage Reed has never once said a cross word to me."

I was floored. As a ten year old kid with 3 older sisters, I couldn't go a day without saying several cross things to several people. But to go 50 years? Incredible.

That night I decided that I wanted to be like Grandpa. I wanted to try and not be cross with/at people. I wish I could say that in the ensuing 20+ years I've followed his example to a T. I haven't. I get cross. I get frustrated and annoyed, and sometimes I speak and act out of the frustration and annoyance in ways that are, well, cross.

That said, I've come to realize that Grandpa probably got frustrated and annoyed too. But Grandma didn't say he never got frustrated or annoyed, she said he never said a cross word. The difference between getting cross and not saying a cross word may be subtle, but to me it's one of the most important things we're here on the earth to learn. The difference is in whether we act on the frustration and annoyance we feel, or if we choose to love people and give them the benefit of the doubt. And that approach to life -- acting out of charity, rather than frustration -- is something I feel like Grandpa had pretty well figured out. And, frankly, it's something the world could use a lot more of.

Grandpa wrote a little poem that I feel encapsulates this idea, and the way he chose to live his life. Maybe it can serve as a nice reminder for all of us, today on the 100th anniversary of this great man's life, especially in this world that I think we all wish were a little bit better.

“A Better World” Do you wish the world were better? Let me tell you what to do: Set a watch upon your actions, Keep them always straight and true; Rid your mind of selfish motives, Let your thoughts be clean and high; You can make a little Eden Of the sphere you occupy -Reed W. Anderson

Friday, February 16, 2018

Some Thoughts on "Thoughts and Prayers"

In the wake of the latest school shooting in Florida there has been an upswing in people railing against individuals sending "thoughts and prayers" to the victims. We've all seen/heard/maybe participated in such rantings. For example, there this gem:

or there's the visual metaphor:
And so on.

The general thrust of the argument is that thoughts and prayers don't stop school children (or concert goers, or nightclubbers, or church attenders, or etc.) from getting shot. We need action. We need policy. We need to stop/start *insert whichever line of action that best fits your politics/worldview*.

While I completely understand where this line of thinking is coming from, I disagree with it. In fact, I'd go so far as I hate it. I hate people telling other people to stop thinking and praying for others in need. In fact, my argument is the complete opposite:

In the face of tragedy, people need to think and pray more.

The real problem with the "thoughts and prayers" that so many people rail against is that these thoughts and prayers as expressed on twitter or on facebook or on etc. never get beyond the screen. It's a kind of virtue signaling that allows the signaler to feel like a compassionate person before settling in for another 6 hours of netflix or stripping down for a workout in the congressional gym. Is that unfair and overgeneralized? Absolutely. Those who express their "thoughts and prayers" likely aren't setting out to be unfeeling, uncaring, and numb to the real difficulties of the world around them, but that doesn't change the impotence of such expressions when they don't go beyond a couple of thumb-taps on social media. 

But here's the deal: 

That's not thinking and praying!

A prayer isn't just something you say and then go about your life as if nothing had happened. A prayer should be a meditative, reflective act about the nature of life in which you express gratitude for what's going well, ask for help and support in areas of weakness or struggle, and resolve to do/be better in whatever way you can. A prayer uttered in this vein goes beyond the words themselves. It can and should be transformative regarding how an individual lives his/her life. 

Allow me to illustrate what I mean using a scripture from The Book of Mormon. In this scripture a prophet, Amulek, is teaching a group of people about the importance of praying always. (He really emphasizes the "always" part of that.) He wraps up the portion of his discourse about prayer by saying:

"Yea, and when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you. 

"And now behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, do not suppose that this is all; for after ye have done all these things, if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in need—I say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.

"Therefore, if ye do not remember to be charitable, ye are as dross, which the refiners do cast out, (it being of no worth) and is trodden under foot of men."

If you pray "for the welfare of those who are around you" but then don't actually do anything to help and improve the actual material welfare of those who are around you, 1) your prayer is in vain, 2) your prayer availeth you nothing, 3) you are a hypocrite who denies the faith, 4) you are dross, cast out and trodden under the foot of men. 

(Okay, so I'm not totally sure how the bit about being "trodden under the foot of men" plays into the discussion here, but it is a pretty fantastic image.)

While I've been talking thus far most especially about this issue from a religious perspective -- the prayers side of things -- I especially like that the common parlance joins thoughts with prayers. It seems to suggest a union of those who are religious and those who aren't terribly keen on religion or overt shows of religiosity. While prayer is a conversation with an individual and his/her/their deity of choice, "thoughts" don't necessarily have to invoke the divine at all. The process I described above isn't exclusive to such belief. 

Anyone can take a few moments out of their day to think and reflect on life, both ours and that of those around us (near and far.) In such a reflection, we can recognize that some things are pretty great (the Jazz are on an 11 game tear, for example), and we can recognize that some things are pretty not great (...unfortunately, you don't need help coming up with an illustrating example on this one). But then rather than just leaving it there, we need push on and ponder about what we can do, individually, to improve the things that aren't great. And then we need to actually do them.

In this way, a thought/prayer for the homeless might look something like this:

A thought/prayer for the hungry might look something like this:
(Except some food banks prefer donations of money to donations of food)
A thought/prayer to relieve those suffering from natural disaster might look like this:

So what does this look like in the face of yet another school shooting? Well, it depends on your sphere of influence. It might mean contacting your government representative and asking them to advocate for a position you believe in. It might mean actually enacting legislation that ameliorates the problems. It might mean just going out of your way to get to know and choose to love somebody who isn't like you.

Thoughts and prayers can go a long way towards improving the world, if for no other reason than they can/should serve as a means of focusing the actions we take to confront the evils of the world. 

That said, at least for me, the need for "thoughts and prayers" goes beyond improving the world and making it a better/safer/more humane place. As a person of faith, prayer in particular provides for me eternal context and a basis for hope and optimism despite the horrors of the world.

As the current prophet and president of the LDS Church, Russell M. Nelson, has said:

“I recognize that, on occasion, some of our most fervent prayers may seem to go unanswered. We wonder, ‘Why?’ I know that feeling! I know the fears and tears of such moments. But I also know that our prayers are never ignored. Our faith is never unappreciated. I know that an all-wise Heavenly Father’s perspective is much broader than is ours. While we know of our mortal problems and pain, He knows of our immortal progress and potential. If we pray to know His will and submit ourselves to it with patience and courage, heavenly healing can take place in His own way and time.”

So yes. Let's think and pray. But more than that, let's allow those thoughts and prayers to drive us to act. As we do, peace and change can be ours.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

On Writing and Struggle and Being a Religious (Mormon) Grad Student

So I'm officially the last person in my cohort to be ABD. I realize that the previous sentence might make it sound like I've recently achieved ABDness myself, so allow me to clarify that no, I have not. Not yet. I'm fine with that. And by saying that I'm fine with it, I'm not trying to convince myself to be fine with it. Really, I am fine with it. I've long since stopped judging my work/ability/value based off of how/what other people are doing. Also, I know very well that I've been working hard, and after several starts and stops and research project ideas and epiphanies and inspirations that weren't actually inspirations but were really just me being a little gassy, I'm on track to defend my prospectus and be ABD by April. So really, I'm fine. And I'm content with where I am in my progress towards graduation.

That said, while I really and truly am fine and encouraged with where I am and where I'm going, it has been and will continue to be hard. I know that very well. I'm a realist here. I knew coming in that it was going to be difficult. It ain't all daffodils and sunshine. (Especially those winters when the arctic death chill came sweeping through the Midwest.) There really are times when it's hard. No, that's not strong enough language. There have been times when it has frankly been miserable. There have been times when I've felt thoroughly inadequate and like I completely don't belong here. There have also been moments of gold and flashes of light - times when I have love love loved what I'm doing and the direction my life is heading.

I feel like the last month or so I've been riding the crest of one of those waves where it all seems to be coming together, and I feel good (I knew that I would.) That might be a-little-bit-more-than-partially due to the fact that I got engaged to an amazingly wonderful woman earlier this month. But on top of the awesomity of Shar and being engaged to her, I just feel like my academic and scholarly pursuits are also looking very positive lately.

This is a picture of me being a scholar. A scholar that needs a haircut, sure, but a scholar all the same. 

And so, anticipating that in the ensuing days, weeks, and months as I writewritewritewritewrite I will descend from the mountaintop and the struggles and difficulties and weaknesses and insecurities will resume, I wanted to write down a few thoughts that I can hopefully return to as a pick-me-up.

Early on in my time here at Purdue, my master's thesis adviser Kristine Hansen gave me some counsel and advice that I often go back and revisit. As a part of that advice she wrote, "It's a long, hard slog to the PhD, but if you take it a day at a time and give each day a good effort, you will succeed." As I was expressing above, it has been a long, hard slog, and I only anticipate it being longer and harder and sloggier before it's all over.

Part of what has made it difficult for me is I feel inadequate with my writing. I'm feeling this inadequacy in writing especially keenly of late as I've been working on several projects: my dissertation prospectus (the thing I have to write and defend before I can officially be ABD), and article I recently resubmitted to a journal, and a couple of conference papers. The fact that I've been actually working on and making progress on these projects has been encouraging, but almost every time I sit down at a computer to compose I feel woefully inadequate. The moment my thoughts begin to taken written form, I'm hyper-conscious of them not being as sophisticated and polished as I want them to be.

The nice thing about this struggle is that I know I'm not alone in it; if nothing else, I have the company of my students. It's kind of funny that I feel like I struggle so much with writing when at the same time I teach and study writing and have been doing so for 5.71875 years now. I'm supposed to be the expert in the classroom, but the only thing I feel expert at is trying to write and failing. And then trying again and failing a little less. And then trying again and failing a little less. And that process continues until I'm reasonably content with the amount of failure on the page. I will say, though, that now that I'm in my 11th year of college, I'm able to work through this pattern of failure and correction much more quickly than in years past. In fact, I may even be getting to the point that Don Murray wrote about where I'm able to "glory in [writing's] unfinishedness." That said, it isn't always as simple as all that. It isn't always easy to quiet the inner voice that says, "you're not enough and you never will be."

Luckily, I'm pretty familiar with that voice, since it's the same one that seems to be talking whenever any aspect of my life seems overwhelming and I feel inadequate. I say that it's a lucky thing because I have a surefire way of combating that naysayer: I turn to the scriptures and to prayer.

When I find myself struggling in writing, I am often able to draw strength particularly from one of my favorite passages of scripture in the Book of Mormon. When I was teaching at BYU I would often share this with my students at the point in the semester when everything seemed to be piling up and the workload was getting to be nearly impossible. I liked doing this because it seemed to help them, but it also did a pretty good job of helping me as I faced similar piling ups and impossibilities. Being at a secular, public institution now I can't share this directly with my students, but I still go back to these verses when I'm feeling particularly unsure of myself.

Actually, before I share the scriptures and why I find them helpful, allow me to share a little bit of context for them.

The scripture comes from the 12th chapter of the Book of Ether in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is a collection of scripture written by prophets in the Americas from about 600 BC to 400 AD. One of the last prophets, Mormon (for whom the book is named), collected, condensed and abridged the writings of all the prophets in the previous nearly 1000 years of his civilization. He then gave his abridgments to his son Moroni. Moroni, the last man in recorded in the book who was faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, wandered alone with his father's abridgment of sacred records for many years. During his wanderings, Moroni added to his father's compilation by abridging and compiling the Book of Ether, which was derived from prophetic writings of a people that even predated Moroni's own. It is in this context that Moroni is writing (not abridging) Ether 12.

Quick summary:

- Moroni has in his possession and has likely studied extensively his own father's compilation of writings, writings full of wonderful and powerfully written stories, prophecies and sermons.
- Moroni is abridging and writing about several prophets of God, one of whom, according to Moroni, "[God] madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty...unto the overpowering of man to read them."
- Moroni knew, being a prophet himself, that several hundred years in the future the things that he was writing would be found, translated, and spread widely throughout the world.

With the weight of comparison with others greater than himself (according to his perception), and the weight of the expectations of an unseen and probably judgmental future population, Moroni felt unsure and inadequate, and he took his concerns to the Lord:

23 And I said unto him: Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; for thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them;

 24 And thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. Behold, thou hast not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them.

 25 Thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words; and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words.

Moroni was nervous that the things he was writing weren't up to snuff. He worried that the people in the future who were reading what he was writing would make fun of him. When I read these verses I see myself, though to a much, much lesser degree. Don't get me wrong, I'm not setting myself up as a prophetic figure in any way, and I surely don't have the same pressures on my writing that Moroni had, but that insecurity. The phrase, "the awkwardness of our hands." Stumbling because of the placing of my words. I can relate to that. A lot.  

The following verses after Moroni recounts his struggles, are, to me, some of the sweetest in all of holy writ:

26 And when I had said this, the Lord spake unto me, saying: Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness;

 27 And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.

Verse 27 of Ether 12 is one of the most oft-quoted verses throughout The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and more often than not it gets used in the context of weakness in general. In any area in which we feel weak, in any area in which we feel like we are not enough, in any struggle, insecurity, or slog, we can find strength in the grace of Christ. As we humble ourselves before Christ and find and build our faith in Him, His ennobling and empowering Atonement can provide us with the ability to overcome whatever weakness we need to overcome.

I believe that to be true in the general application of the scripture, but I love that the direct context of the passage - the particular weakness in question - was the struggle to write.

Many times over the past several years I have found myself in positions where I feel like I can't do what's being asked of me, that I can't write what I need to write. But in every one of those instances, as I have knelt down to pray and ask for divine help and strength to enable me to write beyond my ability, that divine help and strength has come. In every case. I have been able to complete the tasks before me, and even on occasion I have been able to feel pretty good about my work.

So as I go forward with the coming writings that are sure to push me well beyond where I'm capable, I know in whom I have trusted previously, and I know that I can have the confidence to do all things with His help.

Quick end note: A year or so after coming to Purdue, a professor of mine from BYU, Trent Hickman, gave a devotional address about this same idea that I very highly recommend. I felt validated knowing that he too struggled sometimes, and that he had found similar comfort in these scriptures.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

My Brain Is a Jerk

But for real. He is. He's like that guy who shows up after all the work is done and pretends to be disappointed that he can't be of more help. He shows up just when his usefulness (in its proferred capacity) is of no use because there are other things to be taken care of. Just now I sat down in class and he immediately started saying, "Hey I want to do that thing I've been dragging my feet on all summer. Whadya say? Oh, you have to go spend an hour and a half doing something that you're obligated to do and that is sure to suck any and all motivation? Well darn. Maybe next time." Except he knows that there will be no next time. Or at least it's gonna be a long while before he comes back again. Like I said. He's a jerk.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

A Lovely Afternoon Plea for Help

So the past several days, as I've driven round the lovely countryside of north-central Indiana, I've noticed some beautiful purple flowers either off to the side of the road or on the edges of cultivated fields. While a lot of wildflowers seem to be a little bit drab until you get up close and realize just how amazing they are, these ones are brilliant and vibrant even from a distance. The problem is, I have no idea what they are.

So today as I was driving home from the institute after a lovely morning at the temple, I decided that I needed to know what they were. The problem is, like I said, most of the time I see these flowers off the side of the highway, and a lot of times the highways 'round these parts don't have convenient shoulders. Also, after driving down to Carmel and back I wasn't all that keen on going for a long drive out into the country. So I decided that my best bet was to go to my favorite cemetery, park back in the corner, and explore my way through the wild until I found what I was looking for.

So I did.

First a word about my favorite cemetery:

St Mary's Cemetery
It's my favorite not so much because it's particularly outstanding in any particular way, but rather because it just seems like it's just what a cemetery should be in all the normal, lovely ways. Namely:

  • It has lots of really big trees
  • It's away from the crowds and the bustle, so it's always quiet and peaceful
  • It's close enough to my apartment that I can ride my bike to it
  • It has a lot of winding roads/paths that are fun to ride my bike around on
  • It has a nice mix of old and newer stones
  • It's big enough that I don't get bored
  • It's close-but-not-too-close to a set of train tracks. And I love the sound of trains
So, like I said, I drove back to the corner of the cemetery, parked my car, and wandered back into the trees.

As I stepped into the knee-high grass that marked the edge of the wild, the thought occurred to me that I was putting myself in a prime position to be snakemurdered. I took this as a sign that I was going about things the right way. (Jordan understands.) Almost immediately I found myself on what appeared to be a game trail that turned into something of a tunnel under and among rows of honeysuckle bushes:

While that picture may not be much to look at, let me tell you that it smelled like heaven will surely smell. I went weak at the knees just being there. (My sister Melanie reminded me that heaven will also likely smell of lilac bushes because of their associations with our Grandparents Anderson and Turner. I heartily agree with that sentiment.)

After a blissful trek through the honeysuckles the wood opened up into a clearing of sorts. I felt good about my chances of finding my quarry, because these purple flowers had always been seen (by me) in open spots of land. So I began walking along through the grass, keeping an eye out for any hints of color. As I came around a bend, I saw off in the distance next to the woods a spray of purple against the green of the grass and trees. Unable to contain myself, I set off high-step running through the grass. I paused just a few paces from the stand of flowers and took a picture of what the flowers usually look like from the road:

As I got closer, I was happy to find that they were just as if nor more lovely up close as they had been driving past at 50 mph. 

At this point you're probably asking yourself, "Hey, I thought Sam was asking for help. So far he's just off rhapsodizing about cemeteries and flowers again. What gives?" Well, let me tell you what it is that is givin.

Unfortunately, while I certainly found these flowers to be lovely, I just as certainly found that I had overestimated my powers of identification. I had hoped that upon close inspection I would immediately know what they were. But I didn't. I have to admit that I was kinda disappointed in myself, but by that same token I figured that if I didn't know, surely the internet would. She'd never let me down before, after all. But I realized that googling "purple wildflowers Indiana" was a pretty fruitless endeavor, since there are many, many flowers which answer to that classification.

So now I turn to you. If you are reading this, please imagine that I am sitting next to you with a pleading look in my eye hoping that maybe, just maybe, you'll be able to help me identify this enigmatic source of joy in my life. As you consider my plea, you feel a moment's compassion and want to help in any way you can.

Now, focus on that desire to help your good friend, Samuel James Dunn. And as you're feeling that, take a look at these other photos that provide a better look at the flowers in question from various angles:

A closer look at the blossoms

The whole plant, isolated from the bunch
Each blossom from edge to edge was probably about the size of a nickel.

My dear friends, what is this flower. While the knowledge I seek is probably not earth-shatteringly important, I crave it all same. Please help.

(And now I very anticipate being told what that it is the commonest of common flowers and I should feel like an idiot for not knowing it straight-away. But I don't care. I'm willing to be made a fool if it means I can know what this is.)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Finding Motivation in Blessed Unrest

Last weekend I went with some friends up to the Art Institute of Chicago, aka, my shelter from the storm.

(This photo was taken at Christmastime, not last weekend)
While in the gallery full of Monet's works (and a couple of Rodin's sculptures) I noticed a pattern on several of the placards discussing the paintings, and I've been thinking about it off and on ever since. I took pictures, so I can give you examples of what I'm talking about. First there was this placard describing Bordighera

Then this one describing Water Lilies

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here, but I want to focus on one sentence in each of these descriptions. In Water Lilies:

"It is beyond my power as an old man, and yet I want to manage to render what I feel. I have destroyed some....Some I've begun again...and I hope that out of so many efforts, something will emerge."

In Bordighera:

In a letter to the sculptor Auguste Rodin describing his efforts to translate into paint the brilliant Mediterranean light, Monet declared he was 'fencing, wrestling, with the sun.'"

Elsewhere, on a placard for the painting Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect (of which I unfortunately took no photo) it read:

"The Art Institute's two Waterloo Bridge paintings are dated 1900 and 1903, but both were likely begun in 1900 and dated only when Monet felt that they were finished."

I love that in each of these three small excerpts that I've quoted there is some sort of struggle narrated. Either's he's wrestling and fencing with the sun (a very fun image), or he's dissatisfied with his work so he's destroying it and starting again, or he's taking 3 years to finish two paintings.

These kinds of acknowledgements of struggle and revision have always appealed to me. It seems that we (and by "we" I mean "I") sometimes look at those whose work we revere, and we/I assume that doing that work came easily to them. They just have a way of having success in their work descend as the dews from heaven, while the rest of us poor schlubs toil away and have little to show for it. While I think there is something to the idea of natural genius (a subject I'm not going to get into right now), I also think that there is something significant to be said of nose-to-the-grindstone effort. With Gordon B. Hinckley, "I believe in the gospel of work." And it's comforting to me to see that even those who were likely blessed with a preternatural abilities have to struggle and work and destroy and start over. It's heartening and motivating to know that hard work may be an intrinsic part of what makes great things great. 

While the direct context of these musings was the world of art and artistic achievement, my thoughts were naturally drawn to my composition classes where my students at all levels are often satisfied with fair to middling. They don't jump into the writing enterprise as something to wrestle or fence, but rather a big hoop-jumping exercise on the way to something else. In fact, if they see themselves wrestling or fencing they see their opponent being me, their teacher, and not the struggle to write. There is often no intrinsic drive to create quality work, but rather to fulfill some vaguely understood "requirements."

I am definitely painting with much too broad of a brush here, as I have had many students over the past few years who are driven by an inward desire to produce quality work for the work's sake rather than just hoping to produce something that's "meh, good enough for government work." And I'm not saying I want all of my students to see their writing as art, and to become artists. I don't even believe they necessarily need to be making their imagined readers feel something. But even if they aren't viewing writing in that way, I wish they could view their writing as important enough to do the very best they can, and to not be satisfied with a second draft that was cleaned up a bit from the first go 'round. I want them to feel the drive that Monet expressed to work and struggle and revise in order to get it right.

Over the past couple of days these thoughts have moved past art and teaching writing to basically any and all enterprises we engage in throughout life. Which has lead me to having several conversations with various people about this subject, basically trying to tease out this question:

How how do we motivate that drive to desire better from the work we do in any and all contexts? 

In these conversations there have been several ideas come up:
  •  The motivation to work harder, to revise, to continue to work and improve something even when it's hard requires an expanded vision of what is possible.
  • That vision often comes when people feel like they are actually contributing something real to the world, that they are engaged in a project that makes some kind of difference.
  • Good leaders, teachers, friends, family, etc. can help to inspire and expand that vision.
  • Good leaders, teachers, etc. aren't enough. Ultimately at some point the individual has to decide  for her/himself to do it.
  • There is a fine line between motivating and despairing dissatisfaction. 
I think the need for that vision that kept coming up in these conversations is encapsulated nicely by Monet when he expressed this hope:

I hope that out of so many efforts, something will emerge.

That last bullet point, that there is a fine line between motivating and despairing dissatisfaction is an interesting one for me. y friend Robert shared a lovely quote with me from modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. It's a little long, but I don't include it just to pad my word count (a practice used to be my bread and butter when writing term papers, but one that I've long-since abandoned), I include it because it's fantastic and well worth your time:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not yours to determine how good it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly, to keep the channel open. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

I love that. I especially love viewing that dissatisfaction as "blessed unrest." What a lovely turn of phrase. But how do we get to that point? How do we get to that point where unrest is motivating rather than discouraging? That's a question that I often struggle with. A lot of times with the various activities I engage in, when things get difficult and I'm dissatisfied it can be very easy to disengage rather than buckle down and work harder. There are many people in my life who seem to have wills made of iron that allow them to just get things done. In fact there are and have been flashes of that in my own life. But it happens all to infrequently for my liking.

All of this leads me to two questions:

1. How can we expand our vision in whatever work we are engaged in?

2. How do we push ourselves and others to see that there is more, that we can do more, and that we can expect more from ourselves and others?

3. How can those of us like myself shift away from seeing difficulty and struggle as discouraging to seeing it as motivating?

Okay so there ended up being three questions. So sue me.

I have some thoughts on how these questions can be answered, but I'm curious to hear what others think about it. I'd greatly appreciate any comments, questions, or advice anyone who reads this might have on the subject. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Regarding How My Mom Is the Best

I don't mean to belittle anyone else's mother by my title to this post, but here's the deal, my mom is the kindest most loving woman you've probably ever met. Those of you that have met her will readily agree. Those of you who haven't met her, I'm sorry. You're really missing out. I mean, really missing out. She's one of those people that can make others feel welcome and at ease and comfortable no matter what. I could tell a host of stories illustrating these attributes on large and small scales, but I just want to briefly recount a seemingly insignificant story that she may not even remember, but it's an experience that has stayed with me a long time. 

Before I get to the story I need to insert two brief bits of background: 

1. Ever since I was a little kid, books and movies have affected me very deeply. If characters do something that I don't like or that I don't necessarily agree with I react much more strongly than I probably should. Just today, in fact, I was discussing with my friends how I can't watch the movie Dan in Real Life because the awkwardness of the various situations that come up are just unbearable to me. I physically squirm every time the bowling scene happens. All of that unpleasantness could have been avoided if people had just talked to each other, for crying out loud. The same goes for It's A Wonderful Life. Every time I watch it I hope against hope that maybe, just maybe, Mr. Potter will find a heart and give the money back to Uncle Billy. But he never does. He never does! Maybe this is just a manifestation of my very strong aversion to conflict, but that's beside the point for now. The point is, when characters do things that I wouldn't do or that I feel like is the wrong thing to do, I can't help but to be bothered by it. And continue to be bothered by it long after the movie or book is over. (I could give many other examples, but this is enough for now.)

2. During my teenage years I had a midnight curfew whenever I was staying out with friends. Whenever I was out, my Mom stayed up until I got home, even if I was getting home a little later than my curfew. It wasn't that she wanted to check up on me and police me to make sure I got home alright, it was that she couldn't sleep until she knew I was home safe and sound.

With these two facts in mind, I want to tell you about the time I went to the midnight showing of War of the Worlds during the summer of 2005.

I need to mention that I didn't think the movie was all that great. In fact, I frankly didn't even really care to see it. But a couple of my friends wanted to go, and we were all about to take two years out of our lives to be Mormon missionaries, so I wanted to go with them. I think we may have even decided to go to the midnight showing not because anyone was really dying to see the movie, but because it was a plausible excuse to convince my parents to let me stay out after midnight and we wanted to hang out as much as possible.

The movie was good enough I guess, but during the movie there was one scene that really bugged me. In the scene Tom Cruise and his kids are driving through town in the only car that works, and it becomes clear to the crowds of people that they're driving through that this is the only car that works and it might be their ticket to be safe from the aliens. So the crowds start attacking the car and breaking the glass trying to get in (even though doing so means cutting their hands). Eventually Tom and the kids get out of the car and get away, but the crowd behind them keeps fighting over the car. Most of what happens after this happens off screen, but it is made very clear that individuals whom we have just met, loathsome as they may have been, are then murdered in cold blood. Again, we don't see anything, we just hear the gun shots and see the family's reactions. I didn't know why exactly, but like I said, this really bothered me.  

The movie proceeded to a satisfying enough conclusion, and me and my friends got up and headed for home. On the drive home I didn't let on to my friends that anything was bothering me, but bothered I was. Something about that scene kept nagging at me. As a result, the whole feel I got from the movie just didn't sit well with me, and I honestly wasn't sure why. I got home well after 2 am, and sure enough there was Mom sitting on the couch dozing lightly with a crossword puzzle in her lap. As I came in the door, Mom looked up and smiled and asked me how the movie was. At first I was inclined to just say that it was fine and to head off to bed, but like I said, I was bothered. Not meaning to really get into it at all, I said something along the lines of, "It was alright. It kinda bugged me, but whatever." Mom, perceptive as she is, recognized that something was eating at me, so she pushed for details. So I sat down on the stairs and started describing the movie. When I got to the scene I described above, I mentioned that that scene specifically bugged me but I didn't really know why.

I say I didn't know why, because the concept of humans killing other humans, while terrible, wasn't a foreign concept. I was nearly 19 years old after all. I watched TV. I'd seen Law and Order. One of my favorite movies was (and is) The Dirty Dozen. I had spent a good amount of my high school years playing Medal of Honor: Allied Assault with my friends. Death wasn't this new, awful thing. So it wasn't necessarily the killing that was the issue, but I didn't really know what the issue was. 

After hearing me out, Mom wondered aloud if what bothered me wasn't that people were killing and dying, but rather that what bothered me was the assumption the movie was making about humanity. The assumption being that normal everyday humans, when driven to extreme crisis, turn savage and are willing to do anything - even kill other humans whose only crime is representing some perceived threat to their survival - just to gain some semblance of advantage. As she mentioned this I recognized that yes, that was exactly the issue. I remember I stood up from the step I was sitting on and began to say that yes, I didn't buy that assumption. I didn't believe that about humanity I believed that in crisis people wouldn't turn savage, but instead would revert to the better angels of our nature and find some way to cooperate and work together. I was excited to be able to recognize what it was that had bothered me so much, and in identifying it I was able to calm down and not be so bothered.

I don't remember where the conversation went from there, but I doubt much more was said, and we both went to bed. In all, the conversation maybe lasted 5-10 minutes. Short as it was, there are a couple of things about the conversation that have always stood out to me:

1. This was the first time that I experienced first hand the catharsis that can come from literary criticism, simple as it was. Mom, by helping me dig into and better understand the argument the movie was making about the human condition, helped me to identify and resolve the emotional conflict that resulted from the film. This was a real turning point for me in being able to better deal emotionally with books and movies (and later theories and philosophies) that didn't sit well with me, and was part of the reason I decided to study English once I'd come home from my mission.

2. Mom was clearly very tired. I, fairly inconsiderately, had kept her up much later than she would have liked to be up. Even so, when I got home from the movie clearly bothered about something, rather than just saying goodnight and sending me off to bed, she took a minute to help me figure out what was bothering me. And it wasn't like it was a big deal either. I hadn't had some crisis of faith or identity that needed discussing. I wasn't an emotional wreck or anything of the sort. I was just bugged by some dumb movie. I probably would have gotten to sleep just fine (heaven knows sleeping is never a problem for me). But something was bugging me, little as it was, and she wanted to help me figure it out and get over it if she could, even if it meant her staying up a little bit longer.

Again, this isn't all that remarkable of a story, but to me it's representative of the kind of woman my mom is. She's kind and loving. She's easy to talk to. She's very perceptive of the needs of others, even relatively small needs, and she is willing to help serve and lift those in need any way she can. 

All told, she's probably the best mom this boy could possibly hope for, and I don't know how I got so lucky to have her be my mother.