Hold Up Your Light

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Dear Will:

On Saturday night, my wife and I served as chaperones at a monthly dance for the youth of our church. Kids came from a surprisingly wide radius, so there was a pretty good crowd. Although dances these days are very different than when I was a teenager, they all seemed to be having a really good time. It seemed to be good clean fun.

At one point the kids formed a tight circle in the middle of the gym, preventing us chaperones from observing what was going on within. To make matters worse, the DJ pretty much killed the lights, leaving it to the kids to illuminate the dance floor with their cell phones. Trying my best to be vigilant without being Captain Buzzkill, I wandered closer to see what kind of mischief they might be making.

The kids were pumped. As I approached this scrum, virtually every phone in the place was held aloft, creating a spotlight effect at the center of the bouncing circle of teens. And at the center of the circle? A boy with Down syndrome, doing his best John Travolta while the rest of the kids cheered him on.

He was loving it. And so was I.

In a different place with a different set of kids, you might imagine something far less virtuous when you see a group of rowdy youths gathered around a kid who is “different.” So it was heartening to see these young followers of Christ doing their best to emulate their Role Model. He showed the way and then challenged each of us to go and do likewise (Luke 10:37).  And they did.

Their timing could not have been better. As December is now upon us, the Church has embarked on an initiative to encourage all people everywhere to make an effort to “Light the World” through simple acts of service. Here’s a video that introduces the idea.

Dana and I have determined to accept the invitation, and I hope you will too. You should download this advent calendar that the Church put together with a different world-lighting idea for every day of the month leading up to Christmas. What a great way to embrace the spirit of the holidays.

Jesus said: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). I hope that this Christmas season we will all hold our lights high and bring happiness to whoever comes within our circle.

PW

#LightTheWorld

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Hope Without Optimism

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Dear Will:

One of my many (and most glaring) character flaws is that I care way too much whether or not my team wins. That hyper-competitiveness has served me well only to the degree that it has driven me to strive for excellence in most of my endeavors (home repair being a conspicuous contrapositive). And while I have been somewhat successful over the years at suppressing those emotional urges, they still manifest themselves from time to time in awkward circumstances: during the scramble for the final wedge in Trivial Pursuit, for example, or in a three-legged race at the company picnic. It’s embarrassing.

Where that desire to win manifests itself most darkly is in the world of competitive team sports. If my Bruins lose a close one, it can send me into a funk that lasts for days, especially (as it so often seems) when they should have won. If I had the misfortune of being from, say, Cleveland, this competitive spirit might not have such a firm hold on me. But I grew up cheering for the Dodgers and Lakers and UCLA, teams with enough history of success that victory and even championships are often a distinct possibility, resulting in expectations in profound disproportion to objective reality.

So you can imagine, without any creative effort, how I was feeling last night when my Dodgers, who haven’t won a championship since before my children were born, blew multiple leads and lost 13-12 to the Astros in Game 5 of the World Series. Now, if you are a well-adjusted human, you might reasonably think: I didn’t even realize the Dodgers were in the World Series; or, What’s the World Series? But if you’re me, and the Dodgers end up losing the Series, you can expect to relive the agony of last night’s debacle for years to come. I still get aggravated by how the USA got swindled out of an Olympic gold medal in basketball by the USSR. In 1972. When I was 12.

Unlike the stock market, which provides a buyer for every seller, the sports world is completely imbalanced, with devastated losers far outnumbering euphoric winners in any given season. In a playoff, in fact, every team but one ends its year with a disappointing loss. And if we shrink that world down to mine (the only one that TRULY matters in this context) the moments of euphoria are infrequent and precious. For even though my teams have a history of occasional excellence, history fades even as the possibility of a letdown casts a heavy, constant shadow over whatever is happening right now.

As a remedy to all of this, years ago I committed myself to the following rooting philosophy: Hope without optimism. I believe in it so firmly that I have taught it like a catechism to my children. For I believe that that philosophy carries with it both the fervent possibility of victory and the realistic expectation that we’ll miss the winning field goal in the final seconds. It’s my attempt to maximize the prospective euphoria while mitigating the nearly-inevitable devastation. It’s not a perfect remedy, but it helps.

All of this runs counter to what Jesus taught, of course. “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” He said, “but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Other scripture encourages us to have “a perfect brightness of hope,” knowing that, if we endure well the trials that may lie ahead, in the end we shall have eternal life (see 2 Nephi 31:20). That is the promise of Christ’s resurrection and Atonement: the promise of victory for everyone, a championship even for the most beleaguered among us. His message was all about both hope AND optimism.

Which is a very good thing—especially if the Dodgers blow this Series, which they should have won. Because if that happens, I could just die.

PW

Enough IS Enough

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Dear Will:

Last week I found myself in Cody, Wyoming, for my mother’s interment. My six siblings and I enjoyed the opportunity to give my mother a final tribute and send-off, in spite of weather in the high 30s. (There’s a reason I live in California.)

On my final day there, I visited the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (highly recommended), a marvelous museum that features local and Native American artifacts, a natural history center, the largest collection of firearms you can imagine, and a wonderful display of Western art (including pieces by Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, and others). And buffalo. Lots and lots of buffalo. (Technically: the American Bison, but they didn’t call him Bison Bill, now did they?) The Center has such an abundance of paintings, sculptures, and artifacts that feature or include the buffalo that you get the accurate impression that that very big animal was a very big deal back in the day. (One source estimates that at one point 20 to 30 million bison roamed North America.) For the Lakota and other native tribes, the beast was essential for food, shelter, clothing, and culture—a sacred symbol of life itself.

In contrast, one exhibit describes how fur traders in the 1800s swept through the area, slaughtering buffalo by the hundreds, hauling off their pelts and leaving the remaining carcasses to rot on the windblown prairie. To reinforce the disparity in attitude and approach, the display includes a huge pile of buffalo hides seemingly ready to ship off to market, with a reminder nearby that at one point there may have been as few as 300 bison—TOTAL—left in the world. For me, the display was particularly poignant because I was in the midst of reading Jack London’s classic White Fang, where, in one particularly vivid scene, London describes how the indigenous people of the Yukon resorted to eating their sled dogs during one harsh, winter famine. As I imagined the Wyoming landscape, dotted with discarded buffalo meat, I thought of how White Fang’s captors even found themselves eating hunks of leather to stay alive.

Some might see the traders’ excesses as the natural course of things—the mere harvesting of what God set out on this planet for His children. After all, has He not said: “For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare” (D&C 104:17)? That is true. But at the same time He has also said: “For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures” (D&C 104:13).

The Parable of the Talents makes this point clear. You’ll recall that in that parable Jesus tells of a rich man who, prior to a long journey, gives each of three servants money “according to his several ability.” Upon his return, the rich man rewards those servants who judiciously invested and thus increased their endowment, and he chastises the one who failed in his stewardship. To me it is apparent that God will hold each of us accountable for how we use (or misuse) the abundance with which He blesses us. There may be “enough and to spare,” but there is nothing in that promise of bounty to suggest that we should be profligate or wasteful with regard to what we have been given.

The good news in all of this is that the bison are making a dramatic comeback, with a current population of around half a million—a huge improvement over the last 100+ years. In our drive through Yellowstone last weekend, they wandered freely, even stopping our car at one point while they lolled about on the highway. Carefully, we maneuvered around them, grateful for the chance to see up close this mighty symbol of God’s bounteous goodness.

PW