And If You Starve To Death…

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

The welfare session of the April 1976 General Conference was easy to love because it was full of my favorite themes: work and love as the alchemy that transform the routine into the holy. Here is one particular paragraph out of all the talks that stood out to me in particular, however. It was from Elder Featherstone’s talk, Food Storage:

I should like to address a few remarks to those who ask, “Do I share with my neighbors who have not followed the counsel? And what about the nonmembers who do not have a year’s supply? Do we have to share with them?” No, we don’t have to share—we get to share! Let us not be concerned about silly thoughts of whether we would share or not. Of course we would share! What would Jesus do? I could not possibly eat food and see my neighbors starving. And if you starve to death after sharing, “greater love hath no man than this …” (John 15:13.)1

There is an entire sermon of meaning in the portion that I emphasized: “And if you starve to death after sharing…”

You might do the right thing and then die because of it. You would not be the first. We know this might be the outcome because it has been the outcome—for many people at many times and in many places—throughout history. There are no guarantees for you in this lifetime. Heaven’s promises are not confined to Earth’s horizons; they are greater and more distant.

Reward of Saint Sebastian by Eliseu Visconti, circa 1898. (Public Domain)

I have always admired aspects of existentialism because the image of a solitary man wringing meaning out of an uncaring, meaningless void by sheer force of will is tragically heroic. I love my faith because it weds that tragic heroism with the promise of a redemptive ending.

It truly is an exquisite setup that we’ve got here. Because we don’t really know—and, by and large, we simply have to admit that we don’t—about a life after this we are in a position where there is nothing fake, nothing artificial, nothing safe about sacrifice.

Yes, we hope and believe that no tears will fall unmarked, that all wrongs will be righted, and that a great reconciliation will one day heal every wound. That is our dream, but as long as we live in a world where God chooses to remain hidden this remains a dream and not a fact. And it is this absence of God, this lack of assurance that makes sacrifice possible. And sacrifice is the keystone of all virtues.

A saint is a person who embodies the existential ideal of doing good for its own sake and not for the hope of any possible reward. But existentialism is an unresolved chord. A saint hopes to hear the final note, the one that brings resolution to what the discord he has already experienced. Sometimes, in moments of greatest stillness, a saint may feel the fabric of the world vibrating I feel that final note they cannot yet hear, resonating just beyond the threshold of perception. A saint is an existentialist who hopes.

The nature of our mortal existence is such that—even when we understand intellectually why suffering and injustice are necessary—the knowledge can bring us no peace. If injustice, tragedy, or senseless suffering had answers that brought peace, they would be pointless. It is the lack of peace that holds the promise of purpose.

You could accuse me of intellectualizing suffering, of romanticizing tragedy, of trifling with what I cannot comprehend, and if you do I will have no ready response. We all swim in an ocean whose currents are deep and cold and perilous. If I were caught in one I would be powerless against it. I would be pulled into the cold darkness or I would be rescued, but I would not survive on my own. It is luck, so far, that has kept me from the riptide. I know this.

And yet I know one thing more.

Being overcome and being wrong are two different things.

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