This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.
As I was reading the Saturday morning session of the April 1973 General Conference, I realized that there are seven sessions for this GC! They had two each on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and then the priesthood session. That’s hardcore!
The talk that stood out the most to me was (then) Elder Monson’s Yellow Canaries with Gray on their Wings. It centers, as so many of his talks always do, on a story. In this case, an elderly woman passed away and left her two beautiful canaries to others, but left her favorite—a canary with gray on its wings—to Elder Monson, writing in a note: “He is my favorite. Billie looks a bit scrubby, and his yellow hue is marred by gray on his wings… He isn’t the prettiest, but his song is the best.”
The symbolism is straightforward, but that’s not actually what drew my attention. This is:
Can we not appreciate that our very business in life is not to get ahead of others, but to get ahead of ourselves? To break our own records, to outstrip our yesterdays by our todays, to bear our trials more beautifully than we ever dreamed we could, to give as we have never given, to do our work with more force and a finer finish than ever—this is the true: to get ahead of ourselves. [emphasis added]
This is one of those quotes that contains a confounding, counterintuitive twist that you won’t even notice if you’re not paying close attention. The idea that we’re competing against ourselves and not against others, that our struggle is to improve rather than to win, is as true as it is familiar. I just gave this advice to my little kids after they were disappointed with their placement in their very first swim meet. But between those bookends is something rather unconventional, the aspiration “to bear our trials more beautifully than we ever dreamed we could.”
Shifting from beating someone else to beating our own past selves is totally conventional (and very good advice), but who out there really aspires to bear trials in any sense? Overcome trials, sure. Avoid trials, even more so. But to accept trials, to bear them, and to find excellence in the endurance of them? I don’t think it’s something we generally consider.
A friend asked me the other day what I’d learned from the GCO thus far, and I mentioned a few of the things that have stuck out repeatedly (first, the consistent teachings about the family going back nearly a half century and second, the surprising gentleness of a lot of the teachings), but I forgot to mention a third that I’ve just started to pick up on: a lot of the kinds of nuance that some folks complain about not hearing from our leaders is there. The role of common sense in obedience, the importance of exceptions to the rules and—in this case—the important realization that being righteous doesn’t get you out of troubles.
Because that’s the implication, right? If sincere disciples pray to “bear our trials more beautifully” then clearly discipleship isn’t exclusively about avoiding trials (by, for example, avoiding sin and thus the painful consequences) or even overcoming trials (by, for example, having faith to be healed).
If we really embraced this, then the endemic judgmentalism that often infects our wards—a kind of small town, everyone-knows-everyone’s-business consequence of our tightly integrated communities—would be nipped in the bud. If we really understood this, then a lot of the disappointment and even bitterness that happens when faithful members can’t understand why—after doing basically whatever they’ve been taught to do—life throws tragedy, failure, and disappointment in their path.
One of the common responses my parents get to their books (like The God Who Weeps and The Crucible of Doubt) is something along the lines of, “Well, that’s wonderful and lovely, but I don’t recognize it as the Mormonism I was taught growing up.” Culturally, there’s a lot of truth to that. Culturally, Mormonism has its problems because it’s a human culture. But, theologically, a primary goal of my parents is to unearth truths and teachings that have been there all along.
When we make good choices, we do avoid a lot of unnecessary heartache and pain. When we have faith, we can overcome a lot of obstacles that would otherwise be insurmountable. But no one should assume from these two statements (which are true) that making good choices and having faith makes life easier. It’s like they say: the reward for work well-done is more work. There are two simple reasons for that. The first is that the object of our mortal lives is to grow, and we can’t grow by just doing things we already know that we can do. The second is that, quite frankly, there just aren’t ever enough good people to go around. It’s not like there is a deficit of hard work for us to take on. If we understand this, then our expectations for what we get out of discipleship are going to be radically different. Not lower, necessarily, although it might seem like that at first, but different.
If this teaching seems novel, it shouldn’t. It’s right there. It’s been there all along, baked into our scriptures (with their emphasis on progression and growth) and it’s also in the words we hear in General Conference, such as (also from this talk): “to live greatly, we must develop the capacity to face trouble with courage, disappointment with cheerfulness, and triumph with humility.” Again, the clear implication is that a great life is going to have trouble and disappointment. There’s no avoiding them.
Just in case this sounds a bit depressing to anyone (what’s the point, if you’re just going to end up with trouble and disappointment no matter what?) here’s a little analogy I thought of. Imagine a hard-working child learning math. Over years of public school and into college, they move on from basic arithmetic, learn some algebra, eventually get into geometry, and then take on calculus and even real analysis and group theory. If this student has good teachers, then at every step along the way they are challenged. Perhaps, in terms of grades, this student is a B+ student from start to finish. That means that they are failing, on average, at 15% of the time (give or take). There is trouble. There is disappointment. There is failure. It never goes away.
And yet, looking back, this young person can see how much they have gained, trouble and disappointment and failure notwithstanding. By the time this young person has become proficient in differential equations, of course they could go back and do high school geometry more or less perfectly. But how pointless would that be?
That’s why sincere discipleship doesn’t spare us troubles and trials, disappointment and failures. Because—just as with school—the point is to be challenged.
And that is why, following President Monson, the dream of bearing our trials more beautifully is, itself, a beautiful dream.
- Discovering our Potential to Sing by Daniel Ortner
- Sacrament: Re-Place, Re-Order, Re-Member by Jan Tolman
- Counting and Sacrifice by Marilyn Nielson