This Mile’s for You

Dear Will:

Say you were a Jew living in Palestine in the days of Cæsar Augustus. On any given day, you could just be going about your business—heading to the market to pick up some fish, let’s say—and a Roman soldier could interrupt you mid-errand to compel you to do his bidding instead. If he felt like it, Roman law permitted him to hand you his heavy gear and force you to carry it for him a mile up the road. Even if your hands were full and you were headed in the opposite direction, it didn’t matter. You’d have to put down your stuff, hoist his load, and trudge off with him. Here’s guessing you’d be late for dinner.

Any self-respecting person would be understandably resistant to such state-sanctioned overreach. Think of the indignity and the public humiliation of being turned into a beast of burden by some young conscript on a power trip. If it were me, I imagine I’d be thinking: “It’s clear who the ass is in this situation, and it’s not me. Who are you to tell me what to do? If I comply, I’ll be acquiescing to illegitimate authority. This is an assault on my freedom.” At which point I’d have been faced with two options: swallow my dignity and comply, or defy authority and suffer the consequences. Given what we know about Roman soldiers, I imagine that “the consequences” in this case would be, shall we say, unpleasant.

Jesus was around in those days, so I suppose it’s reasonable to wonder what He might have done if one day He caught the attention of some indolent legionary looking for someone to carry his gear. Given the scrutiny under which He often found Himself, we might understand if Jesus had avoided this highly-charged political question altogether. But that wasn’t really Jesus’s style, now was it? In His Gospel-defining Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave explicit instructions on this very question: “Whoever compels you to go one mile,” He said, “go with him two” (Matthew 5:41).

Wait, what? Why would Jesus expect His followers to comply with an unjust order from a gentile oppressor? More to the point, why would He then add indignity to indignity by suggesting that His true followers would willingly go an additional mile beyond that which was required by law?

For starters, I imagine there was the whole “don’t get yourself beat up or killed” thing. At its most basic level, Jesus must have known that refusing the soldier’s order would put an indignant Jew in great personal danger. Beyond that, He would have also known that defiance could put an entire community at risk. The Romans were not above overreacting in order to keep their subjects under control. More than anything, they wanted peace and civility, and they weren’t averse to violence in order to enforce it.

That makes sense, right? As a purely practical act of self-preservation, complying with the law was the logical choice. But if that explanation satisfies you, you haven’t really understood the teachings of Jesus.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus emphasized the importance of putting the needs of others above your own. Time and again He urged His disciples to sacrifice self-interest and convenience in order to show love and compassion to those nearby—even (especially?) those who might seem unworthy of kindness and service. Wasn’t that, in fact, the whole point of the parable of the Good Samaritan, who went well out of his way to carry and care for a fallen stranger? At the very core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the expectation that our day-to-day choices will be informed by a desire to do what’s best for other people, even if it results in a little personal hardship.

So why go that extra, unrequired mile? Because in doing so, you spare your neighbor that selfsame humiliation. Every mile you go, carrying that Roman burden, is one mile someone else doesn’t have to. What’s more, doing so transforms an hour of oppression into an act of selfless service. For a Christian, the labor and inconvenience cannot be required when the miles are freely given. It’s one of the ultimate lessons of the cross: When I willingly do good on behalf of someone else, I don’t relinquish my free will; I celebrate it.

So next time someone asks you to do something you don’t really want to do, something truly inconvenient that may feel like an assault on your liberty, consider the teachings of Jesus. Surely He would urge you to surrender your pride, put aside personal preference and freely do what’s best for others—especially when doing so would ultimately be in your best interests as well. To me it’s worth a shot . . . or two, depending on the brand.

PW

Strength Beyond My Own

Dear Will:

I know it doesn’t seem possible, but I’m pretty sure my hair hurts. My earlobes throb and my toenails are cramping. Even my freckles are in pain. That’s what happens, you know, when you ignore the realities of middle age and decide—who knows why?—that you will climb Mt. Whitney. That’s right: Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, 14,505 feet above sea level. It’s not exactly a walk in the park, as they say—at least, not any park I have ever been to before.

Think of it this way: Say you start your climb (as just about everyone does) at the Whitney Portal, a mere 8,300 feet up. From there, it’s 11 miles to the summit, uphill as it turns out (who knew?). What you’ll notice as you make the ascent is that somewhere around 10,000 feet the trees pretty much give up and go home. The oxygen loses quite a bit of interest as well. So after hiking six miles with a 35-pound pack and spending the night around 12,000 feet to acclimate yourself, you will finish the climb surrounded by nothing but boulders, a few hearty wildflowers (how is that possible?), and other morons who are trudging up the hill simply because, like you, they had a few free hours and somehow it seemed like a good idea.

If you’ve never hung around at that altitude, you can’t begin to appreciate the air you’re breathing right now.  During the final five miles of our climb, I was out of breath constantly. Now I’m the first to admit that in my present physical condition I can get winded navigating the produce section at Ralph’s, but even so, this hike was different. By the end, I was barely shuffling along, concentrating on every breath in the vain attempt to give my lungs the oxygen they craved.

In our little group of 11, seven of us (four teens and three adults) made it to the summit. I confess that my reaction was more relief than elation, however, because the climb was such an ordeal. Little did I know, however, that the ordeal was just beginning.

Upon arriving at the mountain-top, one member of our group started suffering from altitude sickness, which is a polite way to say that he threw up. Repeatedly. For the entire 5-mile descent to our base camp. The poor guy was unable to eat or drink anything without, shall we say, gastric emanations. With no fuel in his body, he had a very hard time getting down from the summit. He would take a few steps, feel weary and nauseated, and have to stop to gather himself.

Once down to 12,000 feet, he began to feel better, but our group still faced the daunting task of getting back to the portal—another six miles below. Because we were racing a thunder shower, we could not stop to eat and decided we would make our way on trail mix and PowerBars alone. The trouble was that, partway down the trail, another of my companions found it increasingly difficult to hike on—not because of the altitude this time, but rather due to complete exhaustion. Eventually his food ran out. His water ran out. His legs could barely move. And yet he remained several miles from the end of the trail.

Most of our group hiked on, making it down the mountain a couple of hours ahead of me and my pal. Totally spent, he bravely stumbled on, zombie-like, willing his body down the trail only because he had no alternative. We radioed ahead to the rest of our fellows to let them know of his plight and to update them on our slow but gradual progress. Then the miracle occurred.

At some point, still far from our ultimate destination, one of the boys who had already completed that day’s 16-mile odyssey came running up the trail to meet us. He greeted us with a grin, and without much conversation relieved my friend of his 35 pounds of gear, gave us a cheerful wave, and went bounding back down the mountain. It was a stunning display of fellowship, a selfless act of amazing proportions. I learned later that when one of our leaders asked for volunteers to climb back up the trail to render assistance, everyone else was too exhausted to make the attempt. Only this 16-year-old boy was willing to go.

His act of compassion brought to mind several images: of the Good Samaritan proffering roadside aid, of Peter and John lifting and healing the lame man at the temple gates. I was also reminded of what Alma taught: That those who would be called followers of Christ must be “willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light” (Mosiah 18:8). Indeed.

Jesus said: “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee?  or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in?  or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:31-40)

I am also reminded of a favorite hymn:

Savior, may I learn to love thee,
Walk the path that thou hast shown,
Pause to help and lift another,
Finding strength beyond my own.
Savior, may I learn to love thee—
Lord, I would follow thee.

Let’s be clear: I did not enjoy climbing Mt. Whitney. It turned out to be one of the hardest days of my life. Even so, I know my pain will fade and my energy return, and when that happens, I will be left with a treasured memory: One of a smiling young man coming to the aid of one of his brethren. That image alone made the ordeal worth it—even in spite of my aching freckles.

PW

That They Shall Not Have Died in Vain

Dear Will:

It’s Memorial Day weekend, but it hasn’t felt much like a holiday around here.  We recently installed some cabinets in our garage, which meant that first I had to spend several evenings culling through our “stuff” and piling everything that was worth keeping into a heap in the middle of the garage.  It then took me two full days to assign the various heap units to their new homes.  The garage looks great (it won’t last, I know; but for a few days we’re indulging the fantasy).  Still, I can’t wait to get back to the office so that I can relax.

As I pulled out my flag to commemorate the holiday, I found myself thinking about patriots.  The great patriots of the world have demonstrated a clear sense that the collective is more important than the individual.  They understood that in the fight to establish or preserve freedom for a nation, the focus cannot be on “me” or “mine,” but rather has to be on “us” and “ours.” Consider the words of Moroni, the great Book of Mormon patriot, which he hastily scrawled but carefully chose as he placed them on the Title of Liberty.  “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children,” it read (Alma 46:12).  That banner became a rallying point for a nation, its message a rallying cry for a people.  It reminded the Nephites that they had something worth fighting for.

Moroni’s selfless leadership also reflected an understanding that in order to achieve great things it would be necessary to give up, or at least place at risk, some good things.  That’s why often, when we speak of glorious patriots, we also speak of tragic death.  Because, as Emerson said, they “[dared] to die, and leave their children free.” A couple of years ago, my wife Dana and I enjoyed one of the most moving Sabbaths of our lives.  After attending church in downtown Washington D.C., we set out for an afternoon of quiet reflection at the various memorials in and around the capital, each one paying homage to patriots, both famous and obscure.  We watched visitors take rubbings from that great wall of the Vietnam Memorial.  We were moved by the drama of the Korean War Memorial.  But nothing was so moving as our trek through Arlington National Cemetery, with its rows upon rows of nondescript gravestones, each paying tribute to a life given up for country.  We witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watched reverently as the honor guard marched 21 steps up, 21 steps back, 21 steps up, 21 steps back—each step honoring the many unnamed men and women who have died defending our country.

Patriots such as these have knowingly faced the ironic truth that in order to preserve our lives and families, we may have to temporarily or permanently forsake them.  It’s a truth that Jesus himself taught.  “For whosoever shall save his life shall lose it,” He said, “and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it”  (Matthew 16:25).  Jesus also said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  It’s what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”  It is the ultimate sacrifice, an act of selflessness that cannot be matched: sacrifice made often in the face of staggering odds; selflessness that defies reason.

What of us then?  Perhaps as we reflect on the great lives and deaths of patriots, we can once again find inspiration in the words of Lincoln, pronounced just months after the bloody battle at Gettysburg: “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say. . . , but it can never forget what they did. . . .  It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated . . . to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we . . . highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain. . . .”

PW