Too Far Gone

 

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Marj was my last English professor. I attended her course for the first few classes and then I stopped going. After about 6 weeks, I was talking with a friend about my absence and how I regretted quitting the class. He encouraged me to reach out to her to see if it was too late for me to go back. I said “There’s no way she’ll take me back.” He responded, “What do you have to lose?” So I emailed her and she responded that it was absolutely not too late and that she’d love for me to return. I attended regularly to the end after that. 

Unlike previous English teachers, Marj actually taught us principles of good writing and she taught them to us through our own interests. That’s how she helped everyone discover the light within themselves. Every other English teacher I had before her seemed to have the same social cause that they imposed upon us. Marj encouraged each of us to read, research and write about topics that were meaningful to us individually. She would work with us one on one to guide and mentor our efforts along the way. 

She loved and respected everyone in the class and, those of us who would open up to her, loved and respected her back. I remember during one of her lessons she was talking about her son in law. When she first met him, she disregarded him because of his outer appearance. She didn’t approve of his hair, piercings or the way he dressed. She told us about her regret that she had judged his outer appearance, especially after discovering his inner kindness, humility and character. As she recounted this story, there was no judgement in her voice. Only genuine love and compassion. The humility it took to publicly admit this fault only added to our trust and respect for her.

These experiences with Marj taught me valuable lessons about following Christ’s teachings and example:

His Grace is Sufficient – Before Marj, my writing was deplorable. C-letter grades were common from my English teachers up until that point. If you were to read my writing, you’d see that my teachers were being merciful. I left Marj’s class with an A and not just because she was a softy. My final paper was submitted to an external writing competition by Marj and another professor in the department. I don’t write this to brag but to emphasize the principle that when we receive the Perfect Mentor’s help, it produces results we can’t produce on our own. We are weak without his help. Critical problems are impossible to overcome without the guidance, empowerment and strength of the Savior.

Don’t Judge – Like Marj, before she repented, many of us have wrongfully passed judgement on others when we’ve had no right to do so. Man looketh on the outward appearance but the Lord looketh on the heart. The Great Judge requires that we have mercy, love and forgiveness for others. Jesus said, “I the Lord will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it’s required to forgive all men.” He also taught us to “Judge not” and that “Judgement is mine“. 

Pride Repels, Humility Invites – Marj’s humility made it easier to connect with her. My other English teachers spoke at us but rarely truly connected with us. When someone is prideful, it’s difficult to build an open and trusting relationship with them because you know that everything you do or say will be received with condescension and belittlement. No one is perfect but yet everyone acts so, to some degree, through their pride. The only perfect person to live on Earth invited others to come closer to him, not only through his words but also through his humble treatment of others. I suspect that the sinners who ate with Christ were happy to be in his company because they knew that despite their shortcomings, he still humbly loved them.

Love Mercifully – Marj’s mercy towards me, after missing so much of the semester, did more good for me than the proverbial sword would have done. I recently learned about a marriage therapist who can predict with over 90% accuracy whether new marriages will end in divorce. The number one indicator is to see whether one or both of the spouses have contempt for the other. When we have contempt, we despise and don’t respect the other person. We cling to the sword as we justify to ourselves why the other person is in the wrong and why our rotten feelings towards them are justified. The Savior didn’t hold anyone in contempt. Even for those who falsely accused, arrested and crucified him, he advocated on their behalf. The world might see such mercy as impractical but consider how many lives have been spared and elevated because of its application. Contrast that to how many souls that have been destroyed because of the proverbial sword. The swords of shame, criticism, judgement and contempt are heavy burdens being lugged around by so-called “pragmatists” who refuse to exchange their burden for the lighter olive branch. The olive branch, as hard as it can be to hold when we perceive wrongdoing from others, is so much more effective than the sword at convincing others to repent, resolving conflict between people and bringing inner peace amidst life’s storms.

The Whole Don’t Need A Physician – On multiple occasions I’ve heard people express that “so-and-so” shouldn’t be going to church because of “fill-in-the-blank” sins that they’ve committed. When the Pharisees saw Jesus eating with publicans and sinners they repeated the same sentiment. Jesus responded that “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick… I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” The church is a hospital for the spiritually sick. The gospel is treatment for the spiritually sick. The Savior is the Great Healer. Much like my unfounded fear that I wouldn’t be accepted back into Marj’s class, sometimes we may convince ourselves that we’re too far gone and that our Perfect Exemplar won’t take us back. None of us are perfect. We’re all spiritually sick and lacking. We can take today as an opportunity to reset our perspectives and consider how we can return to a loving, inviting, unshaming Savior. He’s ready with open arms to receive each one of us. What do you have to lose?

The Beggar & The Three Travelers: Adding To The Golden & Platinum Rules

Beggar WaterThere’s an ancient proverb about The Beggar and The Three Travelers. It’s a hot, dry day. A man is begging in the streets of a city. Another man, dressed in a yellow robe, is traveling through and sees the beggar. Before the beggar could ask for anything, the man gives him the last of his favorite nuts and then continues on his way. A while later, a second traveler dressed in a gray robe sees the beggar and asks what he wants. The beggar says that above all, he would like some wine to help him cool down from the day’s heat. The traveler obliges, gives him wine and continues on his way. A third traveler, dressed in a white robe, assesses the needs of the man, gives him a drink of water and helps him find a continual source of water before continuing on his way. The beggar was allergic to nuts and would have died if he had eaten them. He was also dying of dehydration and the alcohol would have sped up his demise. What he truly needed wasn’t what another person wanted for him nor was it what he wanted for himself. He simply needed water. 

This proverb isn’t ancient. I just made it up. But it illustrates a timeless principle – the need to rise above the limited perspectives of desires when serving others and instead look at needs. The story depicts three ways which we can treat others:

  • The Golden Rule: I will treat others the way I want to be treated.
  • The Platinum Rule: I will treat others the way they want to be treated.
  • The Celestial Rule: I will treat others the way they ought to be treated.

The Golden Rule is commendable. My one year old son recently offered me a soggy animal cracker that he was sucking on with an innocent “It’s good, you’ll like it” expression on his face. His intentions were good. He wanted to share his joy with me. I admit – when I give gifts – I do the same thing. I often give others what I want them to have rather than what they want. I wonder how often they perceive my offerings with the same humored disgust that I felt with the soggy animal cracker. There’s a better way to give.

Living the Platinum Rule means that we escape our own self-centered perspective and see the thoughts, emotions and desires of others from their perspective. Once we do this, we are better equipped to empathize and provide others with what they want. When it comes to harmless offerings, the Platinum Rule is the way to go. But it definitely has its shortfalls. When what a person wants for themselves is unhealthy – physically, emotionally or spiritually – then we should not be giving that person that thing. There’s an even better way to give in these cases.

The Celestial Rule means that we perceive others through the lens of the higher law. The higher law requires that we treat others the way that they ought to be treated within the bounds of tactful, loving kindness. For example, when someone is going through a difficult time, some people will express their sympathies in ways that make it about themselves rather than the person going through the difficult problem (Golden Rule). Others will act as enablers and give the person attention in a way the person wants but this is unhealthy when it feeds negative energy and grants permission to the person to see their problems through the lens of victimhood or helplessness. This is an example of how the Platinum Rule falls short. The Celestial Rule helps us to see the struggling person through the lens of love and the circumstances surrounding their struggles through the lens of truth. When that happens we can, like Christ, empathize with their pain and provide empowering guidance for healing – all in a spirit of love.

Cleaning Our Lenses

LensesImagine that each of us are born with a complete set of virtue-lenses, paradigms by which we’re capable of viewing the world in its proper light. Some of these lenses enable us to see life through perspectives such as (but not limited to) love, justice, freedom and order. Each of these lenses are undeveloped at first. Through time, experience and choices, some of these lenses develop or degrade. A young child may quickly switch from the lens of justice when a toy of theirs is taken, to the lens of love and forgiveness a moment later. A young adult may develop a keen perspective for freedom while their authorities are attempting to administer and maintain order.

Each virtue-lens enables us to decipher truth from error but if any of them are clouded then our virtues can become varying degrees of vices. Much like the lesson from the parable – The Blind Men and The Elephant, an incomplete witness of what is true can lead to faulty conclusions. By matching the columns (clouded lenses) with their respective rows (clean lenses), the following table depicts examples of some vices that we might gravitate towards if one paradigm is clear but another isn’t.

Love (clouded) Justice (clouded) Freedom (clouded) Order/Authority (clouded)
Love (clean) – – –

Dupe who stays with abuser

Millennial “tolerance”

Authoritarian Parent

Socialism

Hippy
Justice (clean) Pharisee: “The law commands that such should be stoned” (John 8:5) – – –

Robbing Peter to pay Paul (aka “social justice”)

(NOTE: Freedom is a boundary of justice but many don’t recognize it)

Revenge

Vigilante

Freedom (clean) Sociopath

Greed

Thief – – –

Libertine

Line cutters

Order/Authority (clean) Inspector Javert (Les Mis) Adolf Eichmann

Milgram Experiment

Fascism

All forms of statism

– – –
Definition of Terms

Love – compassionate caring for the wellbeing of others.

Justice – moral rightness determined by universal (aka “natural”) laws. (malum in se)

Freedom – ability for someone to act according to their free will, unrestrained by others.

Order/Authority – manmade rules aimed towards organizing human to human conduct. (malum prohibitum)

Virtue-blind-spots can be catastrophic to our spiritual journey. Each of us are inclined towards certain virtues but not others. For example, freedom and order seem to be diametrically opposed ideals and so very few people take their opposing view seriously. In his short book, The Enoch Letters, Neil A. Maxwell pointed out that among the righteous, “liberty does not rob order, and order does not mock liberty.” Understanding how our inclinations towards certain virtues can result in the negligence of others helps us to avoid traps we are likely to fall into. It guides our development in a well-rounded, balanced direction.

Approaching disagreements with the understanding that the other person is probably partly right is more likely to open minds and hearts than approaching disagreements with the assumption that the other person is absolutely wrong. Most people have good intentions and valuable perspectives; it’s often the completeness of those perspectives that determine the degree to which they’re correct or not. When our love and justice lenses are clean, we can love the sinner and hate the sin. When our love, justice and freedom lenses are clean we will voluntarily help the needy. When our freedom, justice and order/authority lenses are clean we will want to respect the freedom of others insomuch as they are doing no direct harm to anyone else.

Just like it’s necessary for someone who is visually impaired to wear corrective lenses to see where they’re going physically, it’s even more imperative that we keep each of our virtue-lenses clean so that we can see where we’re eternally headed. Taking a holistic approach to our progression will mean that we will seek improvement in all virtues of life and we will recognize the risks of focusing on some virtues at the expense of others.

The Olive Branch Or The Sword?

great-sealTo commemorate its newly established nationhood, the continental congress adopted a coat of arms known today as the Great Seal. This emblem portrays a bald eagle holding arrows (symbolizing a readiness for war) with one talon and an olive branch (symbolizing peace) in the other. The eagle’s head points towards the olive branch, symbolizing the nation’s preference for peace. The significance of this allegory, while meaningful for a people, also carries an important application for individuals seeking to follow the Savior.

The Savior taught in word and deed the importance of holding the olive branch of love and mercy. During his sermon on the mount, Christ taught: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”. This teaching came in rebuttal to the philosophy “Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy”. It’s easy to hate our enemies and retaliate against those who have done us wrong when our predisposition is to react to wrongdoing with the proverbial sword. Mercy is a harder choice than justice.

“May we ever choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.” Thomas S. Monson (Choices)

The parable of the King and the servant reiterates the importance of being merciful. The king, who was rightfully owed a return for a large sum of money, forgave (olive branch) the pleading servant’s debt. Once forgiven, the servant went and imprisoned (sword) one of his debtors when he was unable to pay back his small amount. The principle of receiving the level of judgement that we resort to in life is depicted in the tragic ending of the parable. The king discovers the servant’s lack of mercy and imposes that same level of judgement on him by casting him into prison.

When presented with the adulteress to be stoned; while in the act of being unjustly arrested; and even during his wrongful execution, Christ held the Olive branch by rescuing and defending the very sinners that we probably would have fought and condemned. While admonishing the early elders of the church to overcome the world, Christ taught: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men”. Christ, the eternal judge, whose right it is to fix and wave punishments, chose not to condemn but to liberate and heal. Conversely, we take it upon ourselves to vigilant around with our sword of “justice” by seeking to right the wrongs committed against us and remove the motes from other people’s eyes.

When presented with the heavy or seemingly insignificant scenarios of life, the question can be asked: are we holding an olive branch or a sword…

  • when someone is driving in a manner we disapprove of?
  • when someone close to us says or does something thoughtless or hurtful?
  • when a co-worker, roommate or associate lives by different rules than we do?
  • when we’re communicating a difference of opinion with someone else?
  • when someone else is communicating a difference of opinion with us?
  • when someone isn’t pulling their weight?
  • when someone broke their commitment?
  • when a neighbor is in need of help and we have other things we’d rather do?
  • when an ecclesiastic or secular leader doesn’t meet our expectations?
  • when someone is dressing in a manner that we don’t approve of?
  • when our prejudices seem to be vindicated?
  • when a child is being rambunctious?
  • when we find out our parents aren’t perfect?
  • when someone’s pride shows through?
  • when we see the poor as deserving of their condition?
  • when we covet what the rich have?
  • when we want the youth to experience the hardships that we’ve experienced?
  • when we see the worth of souls as greater within one boundary than another?
  • when someone holds a differing worldview than us?

Are any of these condoning adultery, aggression, dishonesty or any other form of wrongdoing? Of course not. Being merciful towards people doesn’t mean that we reject God’s law in the process. Also, we can’t control the thoughts and actions of other people. All we can control are our own thoughts and actions. Preferring the olive branch over the sword will make our responses to life’s tests become easier to endure and will fill our souls with peace and love.

Principled Pragmatism

Principle SifterWhen faced with an idea or choice one of the first questions most people ask themselves is- “Is this practical?” but few back up and ask, “Is this even right?” The first question deals with pragmatism (or with what works) while the second question deals with principle (or a fundamental truth, a foundation on which to base all other reasoning and behavior). If we ignore principle and merely look at what will “work”, we often fall victims to silly, expensive, addictive, and/or dangerous ideas and behaviors. We suffer the consequences of our ignorance and moral decadence. We would be better off if we filtered ideas and choices through principle first, practicality second. If an idea doesn’t pass the first test then there is no sense in even contemplating how to execute it. If it does pass the first test then we can contemplate the practicalities of execution. This is principled pragmatism.

The term principled pragmatism is actually a redundancy since true principles are indeed pragmatic. It isn’t always obvious (in fact many times it is paradoxical) but when we base our decisions and convictions on truth- it always works out in the end.

Isaiah Messianically wrote:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

For many sincere individuals, experience and revelation have proven that the Lord’s ways are higher and more practical than ours. Though we may be tempted to believe that our “pragmatism” is more expedient than principle the Lord also taught “lean not unto your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5), “yield to the persuasions of men no more” (D&C 5:21), and “keep all my commandments” (D&C 43:35). It’s been wisely said that, “When someone bases his life on principle, 99 percent of his decisions are already made.” Having made these decisions based on gospel principles beforehand helps alleviate the temptations to make bad decisions when those choices arise.

The pseudo-pragmatism that many subscribe to might be best termed shortsightedness. The pseudo-pragmatist looks at what works here and now but since he failed to consider the principle, there will likely be unintended and/or unforeseen negative consequences eventually—whether in this life or the next.

Look at excessive debt as an example. A father of four on a $40,000/year income who goes into debt for a $70,000 BMW was being a pseudo-pragmatist. He saw something he wanted, asked himself how he could get it, and he went out and executed that plan. If only he had stopped to ask the questions- “Is this even right? Am I being responsible? What risk am I putting my self and family at?” But because of his “pragmatism” he did what “worked” and got what he wanted. Eventually his bills will come due. Hunger, loss of freedom/opportunities, embarrassment, marital issues, and/or bankruptcy will likely afflict him and his family.

Unnecessary spending applies to individuals the same way it applies to families (unaffordable vacations), businesses (lavish executive dinners/bonuses), governments (bailouts, imperialism, welfarism, etc) and other institutions. When spending exceeds revenue (debt, inflation, and taxes) government agents hardly ever consider serious spending cuts (a responsible direction) but instead look for ways to raise revenue (enslave). It seems as though much of the things being considered by agents of government are pseudo-pragmatic. Some could make a strong case that taxes are a form of pseudo-pragmatism since it is using force to take someone else’s property. But what correct principle is thievery or legal plunder being based on? A long list could be compiled of things we do through government that defy principle but are done because it’s “practical”. A few might include:

  • Unwarranted searches/seizures and spying on innocent civilians to prevent crime
  • Pre-emptive war because striking them first gives us the advantage
  • Total War- destroying the moral, lives, and property of innocent people in order to “win” war
  • Economic sanctions because causing a nation’s civilians to suffer usually causes their government to bend our way
  • Torture- using pain, or disfigurement apparently gets our enemies to talk
  • Protectionist regulations and licensure which favors one sector over others because it raises power/gain for government and gets rid of competition for certain industries
  • Bailing out big banks and businesses because it would be economic disaster otherwise
  • Welfarism (robbing Peter to pay Paul) because people will suffer/die if we don’t redistribute the wealth
  • Enforcing social justice because certain groups of people with less opportunities deserve more- even if it’s at the expense of the right and control of property for individuals
  • Inflating the currency because it’s a good way to reduce the national debt and pay for warfare and welfare
  • Maintaining the American Empire because we want to enjoy our standard of living and we don’t want any “bad guys” to become a world superpower

Look at each of these things and notice how immoral and shortsighted they are. Also notice that fear is at the root of all of them. Many excuse or attempt to justify these things because they don’t see any other “practical” alternatives. Though choosing the right may not have immediate/obvious results Joseph F. Smith taught us:

“That through [Christ’s] atonement, and by obedience to the principles of the gospel, mankind might be saved (D&C 138:4).”

Unprincipled pragmatism is a form of focusing on ends at the expense of means. As explained here, worthy ends do not justify immoral means. Paul had to debunk the false idea attributed to him— “Let us do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8). Elder F. Burton Howard also taught:

“The war in heaven was essentially about the means by which the plan of salvation would be implemented. It forever established the principle that even for the greatest of all ends, eternal life, the means are critical. It should be obvious to all thinking Latter-day Saints that the wrong means can never attain that objective.” (Repentance)

So does something being “practical” automatically make it right? Do the principles “Thou shalt not steal, lie, or murder” take a back seat to Machiavellian statism because fear and aggression seem to work better than love and persuasion? Lest someone assume that this is condoning anarchism then please read the story of King Benjamin (Mosiah 2:14). Did he, an agent of the people, rule by fear and aggression or did he serve by love and persuasion? Government can exist in a proper frame when its role is based on correct principles—not pseudo-pragmatic ones. Our lives can also exist to their fullest extent and maximum happiness when they are based on correct principles.

“Once they are driven off the high ground of principle, so many people then settle for being “practical.” But immorality is so impractical! Provisional morality always emerges once people desert a basic truth. Such individuals are forever falling back trying to develop substitute rationales, drawing new lines beyond which they vow they will not be driven, only to abandon these also under the pressure of growing evils…

Moral uncertainty always leads to behavioral absurdity. Prescriptions which are value-free always prove to be so costly. Unprincipled pragmatism is like advising someone who is hopelessly mired in quicksand not to struggle—so that he will merely sink more slowly!” –Neal A Maxwell (The Stern but Sweet Seventh Commandment)