A Letter to Myself

Dear Will:

You know that feeling you get when you are working too many hours and getting too little sleep? When you have too much to do and too little time to do it? When you do none of the things that matter particularly well? When you arrive at the end of the day—day after day—feeling as if you haven’t accomplished half of what you needed to or any of what you wanted to?

That’s how I feel.

I’m reminded of a backpacking trip I took several years ago over Piute Pass in the High Sierras. We were planning to stay for a week beside the Golden Trout Lakes, a breathtaking spot some 11,000 feet above sea level. Because of the length of our stay, we were all carrying 35-40 pounds of gear and supplies. The hike in would take most of the day.

It wasn’t so bad at first. Fortunately, the incline was not steep, so we never found ourselves working extra hard. We stopped frequently to enjoy the view or refill our water bottles, none of us in a great hurry to “arrive.” The trouble was that some in our party were not in especially good shape. Their stops became more frequent, and as the “sweeper” in our party I couldn’t go any faster than our slowest hiker. Consequently, the load on my back began to take its toll. By and by, I wanted nothing more than to drop my pack.

I remember the almost out-of-body experience I had when we finally arrived at the Golden Trout Lakes. When at last I could remove my heavy load, I felt like I might float away. I felt almost like an astronaut on the moon, so light was I after carrying that load for hour after hour. What a relief! What joy! What ecstasy!

I have often thought of how many lessons on the Atonement were contained within that hiking experience. Above all, I have thought about how Christ’s suffering for us is in very fact a promise to carry our burdens for us—as if he were offering to shoulder our pack, to give us the gift of relief. His life and death embodied his eternal invitation: “Come unto me, all ye who labour and are heavy laden, and I shall give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Ultimately, it was Jesus’ compassion—his willingness to suffer with us and for us—that best expressed His great love for us.

These lines from a favorite hymn also come to mind, offering good counsel to one such as I who is weighed down by life:

How gentle God’s commands! How kind his precepts are!
Come, cast your burdens on the Lord and trust his constant care.
Beneath his watchful eye, his Saints securely dwell;
That hand which bears all nature up shall guard his children well.
Why should this anxious load press down your weary mind?
Haste to your Heav’nly Father’s throne and sweet refreshment find.
His goodness stands approved, unchanged from day to day;
I’ll drop my burden at his feet and bear a song away.

Hmmm. That’s excellent advice for someone like me. Perhaps this time I should mail this letter to myself. . . .

PW

Advertisements

Just $160 Gazillion Short

Dear Will:

My children have the misfortune of being raised by a guy who doesn’t have a clue how to become wealthy. The making money part I can do. It’s the accumulating of money that has always baffled me.

No one is more upset about this fact than my son Luke, who now finds himself just weeks away from high school graduation. Luke is scary-smart, and except for a pathological distaste for math homework, he does very well in school. He also has the good fortune of doing very well on standardized tests. Add to that the fact that he has spent six years at the Orange County High School of the Arts (where he receives 10 hours each week in after-school creative writing classes) and you get the idea that he shouldn’t have too much trouble getting into college.

To validate that theory, Luke applied for admission to Claremont McKenna College, the ultra-prestigious private university about a half hour north of here. How prestigious is it? It’s generally regarded as one of the top 15 liberal arts schools in the country. There are only 1,150 students there—TOTAL—meaning that it admits only around 260 students a year (maybe 10% or 11% of those who apply). Needless to say, if you can get admitted to Claremont McKenna, it’s a big deal.

Well, Luke got in. I don’t know if I have ever seen him more excited. And I couldn’t have been more pleased. That is, before I got the letter from the Financial Aid Office. It will cost roughly $50,000 for Luke to attend CMC, they say, including tuition, living expenses, and incidentals. But not to worry, they told me. They would throw in $9,300 to help us out.

Ninety-three hundred dollars. A generous offer, perhaps, but it still leaves me $40,000+ short. And that’s just in Year One.

Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t have $160,000 set aside to send my kid to the college of his choice. In fact, I don’t have $16,000. I tried pleading my case to the school, but they weren’t about to contribute enough to make it possible. Luke, of course, is devastated; and I feel as though I arrived at one of those critical dad-moments and was completely unprepared.

But not just unprepared. Inadequate. Helpless. Having fallen so far short of the mark, I found myself unable to conceive of a solution to help him out. I want so badly to send him to this great school, but I can’t pull it off. It is not within my power to do so.

In the many hours of soul-searching I have spent over the last few weeks, I have more than once reflected on the incomprehensible miracle of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. In this life, we cannot begin to approach our Heavenly Father’s divine nature. No matter how hard we try, we will be so unholy that we could not dwell in His presence. Christ, in his infinite love for us, makes reconciliation possible, enabling us to overcome that which we could never overcome on our own. It is as if he came along and paid the $160 gazillion for me. Not because I deserve it (perhaps, in fact, because I don’t). It is His free gift to me—to all of us—which he grants in exchange for our best effort to live the gospel and show our faith in him. No amount of hard work and effort will make us worthy of that gift—rather it is through grace that He makes His Atonement available to us.

Perhaps that analogy is a little strained, but it seems very real to me. This painful, disappointing experience has deepened my understanding of and gratitude for that Great Act of Love. And for that I am grateful. It doesn’t help Luke pay for college, but it does help.

PW

Getting It Right, Thirty Years Hence

Dear Will:

I’m sitting on Northwest Airlines flight 150 from Minneapolis to Orange County. I flew in yesterday for some meetings and I’m racing home wishing I weren’t wearing a starched shirt and wool slacks. I’ve always been more of a blue jeans kind of guy—especially when I travel.

This was one of those quick and dirty business trips which tend to give business travel the bad reputation it deserves. Too much time in airports. Too much time in a hotel room. Way too much time in meetings. And just about no time out and about to make you feel like you’ve actually been somewhere. Even so, this was one of the best trips I’ve taken in a long, long time.

Here’s why: This morning I hooked up with Mark H., who in high school was one of my very best friends. By our calculation, we haven’t seen each other in 24 years. Now that can be kind of a dicey proposition, seeing someone you once knew but no longer really know. The question is always whether there will be anything of substance on which to base a conversation. Will the two of you spend a few happy minutes reminiscing about high school hijinks and then lapse into awkwardness? (“It’s sooo good to see you.” (awkward pause) “ You look great!” (awkward pause) “It’s sooo good to see you.”)  Or will you be able to bridge the years and reconnect on some level much more meaningful—like real friends do.

Well, Mark and I really connected. It was two hours discussing the things that matter most, sharing the worries of fatherhood, the challenges of career deviations, even the evolution of our faith.  (That’s not a minor point, by the way. You see, Mark is a Lutheran pastor.) It gave me much to ponder, much to discuss with my wife when I get home, and great motivation to return to Minneapolis at the next hint of a meeting. It was more than I could have hoped for in a long-delayed reunion with a friend.

One of the things we recalled with a smile was an awkward evening in our youth when we had a testy disagreement about religion. Since Mark is the son of a preacher, it was inevitable even in high school that the two of us would talk about our beliefs. In all other circumstances we were appropriately respectful. But on this particular evening I grossly misrepresented my church’s teachings (because I did not yet understand them), and in response he said some outrageous things about the eternal consequences of my misguided faith. I have thought about that night many times since because I was such a poor spokesman of our church. When I mentioned it to him today, however, he apologized not only for the things he had said, but also for misrepresenting his own faith. We got a good laugh out of our limited understanding as teenagers—especially when we discovered today—some 30 years hence—that our beliefs concerning that particular point of doctrine are essentially the same.

What I believe, and he believes, can best be expressed by this phrase from the Book of Mormon: It is by grace we are saved, after all that we can do (see 2 Nephi 25:23). The idea is that we express faith through action, even while knowing that no amount of action will ever allow us to “earn” the love Christ freely gave us through his Atonement. It is the contradiction of Christianity: That we must give our very best even while knowing that our best is woefully insufficient—and that somehow his love will overcome that insufficiency. What a thrill it was to talk about such important things with a friend whom I had not seen in such a long time.

It was good to see him, and he did look great, by the way. But that subject never came up.

PW