Monday, October 8, 2007

Journeying in Joy

One of the reasons I loved my mission so much was that both of my Mission Presidents emphasized what I already believed about the purpose of a mission – both what it means to be a missionary and how that should direct missionary effort.

The foundation: I have believed a basic concept for as long as I can remember thinking about it. I have believed it from a very early age – even before I remember hearing anyone else articulate it. I finally found the perfect, concise expression of it in the following expression: "People do not believe what they see; they see what they believe." (At least, that is how I remember it.)

The missionary application: I approached my mission as an attempt to find people who would accept our version of the Gospel when they heard it (who could catch a glimpse of the vision when it was presented to them) – or, I should say, who would not reject it when they began to hear it and refuse the chance to begin to see it. It wasn't my job to try to convince them intellectually, but rather to touch them spiritually. Some people I met said, upon hearing various things we believe, "That's crazy. You're nuts. Mormonism really is a cult if you can believe that stuff." Some said, "Say what? Whatever. I just don't get it." Others said, "I don't get it, but I’d like to hear more." Finally, a few said, "That's exactly what I've always thought/felt!" Given what little time I had, my job wasn't to convince the first two groups, but rather to find and encourage the latter two groups – to help them feel the motivating influence of the Holy Ghost.

That perspective led me to say, in essence, to everyone, "Follow what you feel – not what you think about it at first. Try it; you'll like it." If someone responded with strong negativity, my response basically was, "OK. I'll find someone else." They almost always spent more time and energy trying to convince me that I was wrong than I did trying to "convert" them. I was looking for a particular type of person - someone who was looking, first and foremost, for joy – either joy they lacked or more joy than they felt at the time. As I had experienced myself, once they found a core Gospel perspective that produced the joy they were seeking, they were able to wrap their minds around the theological and doctrinal details – the other “intellectual” stuff.

The choice: I believe you can tell more about people (both inside and outside the Church) by how they deal with the joy others find outside their own organization (or with differing perspectives that bring joy inside their own organization) than perhaps by any other criterion. One type of person lacks internal joy, constantly finds fault with the joy of others and actively seeks to undercut that joy; another type is secure in his joy and not interested in the differing joy of others; the final type accepts and embraces the idea that others have their own degree of joy - and tries to add to it (and, through it, add to their own joy) whenever possible. I don’t want to argue with the healthy and happy; I want to learn from them. I want to spend just as much of my time administering joy to the sick and searching.

The blogging observation: When I entered the world of blogging, I was struck immediately by two competing forms of discussion: the vast majority of those who participate in the blogs I frequent are sincerely searching for greater understanding and increased joy. Some of them, however, seem to be stuck in a cycle of trying to understand something intellectually before they can accept it spiritually. They seem to be saying, "I will accept this once I can understand it," rather than, "This brings me joy, so I will accept it and do my best to understand it - even if that means my understanding changes periodically, or regularly, or constantly over a long period of time." They say, "My heart wants to accept this, but my mind keeps me from accepting it," rather than, "My heart accepts this, so I will exercise my mind diligently to try to understand what I have accepted - knowing that that process might not end completely in this life, but I will continue to accept it regardless, because it brings me joy."

The personal observation: I am joyful because I have chosen an outlook that brings me joy; I am at peace because I made the conscious choice from among many options. This peace and joy are not primarily intellectual. I still must exercise my mind constantly in order to understand and reconcile the issues with which I am faced daily, and I love to read the nuanced, intelligent and insightful perspectives of others, but I do so from the foundation of belief. I hear someone (anyone - inside or outside the Church) say something, and my first thought is not, “I don’t get it; it must be wrong,” but rather “How can I understand this in a way that is consistent with my understanding of the Gospel – in a way that will add to my joy?” In all seriousness, that approach has not let me down yet - particularly since I am willing to suspend disbelief when I'm not getting anywhere and revisit the issue when my mind has had time to rest and recuperate. Sometimes, what I consider to be a "full" understanding (meaning as close as I believe I will ever get to knowing fully) has taken years to achieve, and there are some questions that still sit on a shelf untouched for a time while I refine my understanding of others. I'm fine with that.

The question: Why is this?

The answer: I know I am able to construct just about any intellectual justification I desire that will warrant just about any theological / philosophical / doctrinal construct I choose to accept. Given my ability to adapt a solid intellectual argument for whatever I desire to believe, I exercise my agency by focusing on what I desire to believe – what my heart and soul tells me it wants to believe - what brings me joy. I consider the options and make my choice. Again, since my brain is capable of justifying whatever choice I make, I pick my course (what kind of life I want to live), then I construct / adopt / assimilate the perspective that I feel will lead best to the end of that course.

The result: The only intellectual restriction I place on my mind is that whatever I devise must be consistent with the over-arching and under-pinning principles I hold central to my understanding of joy - in my terminology, the core principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as I understand them. I have been accused of engaging in mental gymnastics, but I believe life is, in very real and powerful ways, an obstacle course. I believe everyone plays within their own gymnasium or on their own steeple chase course (jumps through their own intellectual hurdles - or stops and refuses to surmount them) in ways that look odd to others whose conclusions are different. I understand completely the concerns others express, but the joy I feel now is my own soul's condition – what my heart/spirit has directed my mind/body to accept. I no longer feel joy; I have it - and it has me.


Patty said...

My family has wondered how I became who I am today from who I was growing up, and I think part of it was learning to trust in what I feel and letting the intellectual part come afterwards. This especially applied to understanding that Heavenly Father is a loving father who wants what is best for me. I didn't have that type of role model growing up and honestly thought that if God was anything like my dad, I didn't want anything to do with Him. I had to overcome what I believed before I could see what really was. I had to learn to look for the good so that I really could "see what I believe." It took many years and many small miracles for the truths of the gospel to be firmly planted in my soul, but I'm eternally grateful that God loves me enough to keep working with me and keeps bringing me line upon line, just when I need to hear it, and when I'm actually open to it. Thank you for your great insight!

Paul M. said...

Ray this is well written, and I want to read it again when I have more time to see what I think.

I can tell you your perspective seems incomplete, but I'll ring in later after I've read it again.

Papa D said...

Paul, please do. There were all kinds of things I could have added that I left out due to not wanting to post a dissertation, so it doesn't surprise me that it would be seen as incomplete. I am looking forward to seeing if you identify some of those things.