I recently considered the markers we use to identify ourselves when meeting someone new. The most common descriptors seem to include what our work is, where we are from, what our race/heritage is, what religion we belong to, and what our family situation is. Of late, there has also been an increase in identifying oneself by one’s sexual and gender identity.
But why are these the sorts of markers that we use? Do these really represent the most fundamental qualities of a person? If I told you what I do for work, does that really tell you much about how I think and feel? If I disclosed my sexual preferences, would that really give you an accurate window into my soul?
I don’t think so. In my experience, most of these categories have little, if anything, to do with who a person is at their core. Really, I think we only use these because they tend to represent the smallest minorities that we belong to. The mentality seems to be “if you know what is most unique about me, you will know who I really am,” but I think this is a false assumption. Sometimes, it is the broadest of definitions that actually get the closest to the truth.
For example, the identification that I am “a son of God,” hardly puts me into a minority, but it is much more fundamental to who I really am. Descriptions like “I am a Software Developer,” or “my family is from Norway,” put me into smaller buckets, but those buckets are pretty shallow. Being “a son of God” has me in a bucket that is very wide, but also very deep.
I think it is therefore more useful to take those broader, wide-bucket categories, and then go deep with them. If I really wanted to introduce myself in a way that gave people a window into my soul, I might say something like “I am one of God’s creations, and I, in turn, share my Maker’s passion for creating new things. And not only am I a creation, but also a re-creation. I am one who has been redeemed by Christ, brought back from an addiction and loneliness that I thought I would never see the end of.”
Four months ago, I concluded my verse-by-verse study of the book of Genesis. At that time, I decided I wanted to share more of my personal story and how I have found healing through the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have since related a good deal about my addictions and path to recovery, as well as the principles that helped me along the way. I also shifted into my earlier format of picking a single gospel principle and studying it from every angle.
It has been a fruitful four months, and a much-needed change of perspective, but at this point I feel ready to shift back to other forms of study. To start things off, I have had ten little thoughts and mantras that occurred to me over the course of my most recent studies, and I’d like to share them with you, one each weekday for the next two weeks. After that, I would like to go back to my verse-by-verse Bible study. I will pick up where I left off, ready to begin the book of Exodus. The first of these verse-by-verse studies I expect to post on February 20th.
I’m sure that periodically I will have a spiritual experience that I feel is worth sharing here, at which point I will certainly interrupt my verse-by-verse study to relate it. In general, though, I’m excited to get back to examining the small details tucked away in the scriptures. I hope you’ll be able to find it fruitful as well!
I have spent quite a while examining different reasons for why one should live in accordance with the truth, and I have been calling out the ways that we try to excuse ourselves from doing so. Hopefully each one of us will be convinced at some point that we must live in harmony with fundamental truth, aligning ourselves to the universal good.
But, even if we do come to this conviction, we may find a new question that takes its place. It is the same question that Pilate famously posed to Christ: “What is truth?” It seems that the answer to that should be obvious, but any serious examination on the matter will soon uncover a few issues. Most particularly, we will likely find it difficult to distinguish what is THE TRUTH from merely “my truth.”
Consider that many of us hold different principles inside of us that we identify with the truth. Two men confronted by the same injustice might be stirred by their conscience to two different actions. One of them might feel called to meekly endure the offense, remaining patient and longsuffering. On the other hand, the other man might feel compelled to stand up for what is right and challenge the oppressor. Frankly, neither of these reactions feels fundamentally wrong to me. Perhaps towards less severe injustices the passive response seems more fitting, and towards grievous injustices the bold response, but there is a great deal of overlap where either seem entirely appropriate, and I would not call any person wrong for behaving one way or the other. But at the same time, in a single person each response is mutually exclusive to the other. So which way is actually correct?
Furthermore, two men acting in sincere accordance with their conscience is one thing, but what about the issue of us misidentifying our wants with our conscience? I’m sure we can all call out social movements that claim to be based in truth and conscience, but which are clearly just justification for selfish and immoral practices. Making matters even more complicated, while sometimes we know in our hearts that we are being dishonest, most often we really do delude ourselves into thinking that our own personal wants just happen to align with what is cosmically right. How can I recognize what is actually true, and what is just me trying to get my own way?
A Point of Reference)
Both of the issues that I have presented are a result of defining the truth locally. If each person is let alone to define their “own truth,” then there will be as many distinct truths as there are people. We will probably each settle on some genuine pieces of conscience, but also much that is colored by personality or selfish desire. Aligning ourselves with “our truth” will therefore disappoint us, both on a personal and universal level. On the personal level, it will disappoint us because we will come out looking very much the same as who we already are. We will not have any sense of transcendence, of having been called up and made into something new and better. On the universal level, we will never have unity and common purpose. We will remain entrenched in embittered battles against one another, everyone convinced of their own rightness above all others.
If this enterprise of humanity is to move forward, then there absolutely has to be some underlying, fundamental truth established outside of all of us that we can each defer to. There has to be an external truth that is real and consistent, so that we may all come into union when we separately align ourselves to it. If the truth is defined by a person, or if it is shifting in its nature, then we will never find harmony with either conscience or community.
If, however, we do settle upon a universal truth that exists outside of us all, then both of the issues mentioned above are resolved. Now we have a standard that all other “self-truths” can be compared against. Selfish desires, misinterpreted as truth, are immediately recognized as such and discarded. Also, in the example of the two men choosing differently, but according to their genuine conscience, it is possible that the universal truth is broad enough to harmonize with both decisions. While the universal truth will certainly never contradict itself, it does seem reasonable to me that it could allow some range of individual, moral choice within its domain.
Is it any wonder, then, that the bedrock of every civilization has been religion? Be it the Bible, or the Quran, or the Torah, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the words of Buddha, each culture has composed itself around words that are said to have descended from on high. They might have come through the mouths of prophets and sages, but they are not interpreted as the words of those prophets and sages. They are understood to be the words of the external, of the divine, of God in some form or another.
Cultures that detach themselves from sacred truth do not remain cultures for long. As a society they break apart and become an anarchy. As individuals they become stunted and cease to improve their situation. They lag behind the rest of the world, both technologically and ethically, and they are soon destroyed by the whims of the world.
So, going back to our idea that only the life founded upon the truth is free, even after we accept this fact we still have to identify what the truth really is. And in order to do this, we’re going to have to find a source outside of ourselves, and outside of any other person. At some point we’re going to have to find God and discover THE TRUTH for ourselves. Choosing to found ourselves upon the truth is therefore no mere decision that we make once in our current place and then have the matter resolved. Choosing to be founded upon the truth means deciding to go on a great journey. It is a quest of exploration, discovery, and refinement, and it will last us the rest of our lives and then some!
For March my intention was to have a resurgence in saying a prayer and then doing the first good thing that came to mind, all to invite God’s spirit into my life. I also set a reminder on my phone, just to be sure that I didn’t forget what goal I was actually supposed to be working on.
And I did remember my goal, and I did try to implement it throughout the month, but if I’m being completely honest I was pretty halfhearted in my efforts. I believe that when the initial excitement of a new ritual fades, if I haven’t established a regular routine to carry me through the doldrums, it then becomes a monotony to keep carrying forward. That’s exactly what happened here.
In other words, I struggle in the department of making small, lasting changes to my life. And while I know I must continue to rely on grace for my heart to be truly changed, I also believe that a person is capable of carrying out one small improvement after another until they have become something greater than what they once were.
To be sure, I have been able to make some real, lasting changes in the past. This whole blog is one of those changes, and through it I have had the most regular scripture study of my life. But where that particular change was a success, many others have fallen to the wayside, including this one of a pray-and-do-something-good ritual.
So I stopped to consider where the weak link is in that pray-and-do-something-good ritual, and I realized it was in the very first step. The fact is I have had some heartfelt, meaningful prayers in my life, but never as a regular practice. I am too often distracted, or self-conscious, or anxious about getting on to other things in my day.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. One of the foundational pillars of spiritual practice has always been prayer, and that is one area that I have been consistently lacking. So I will make this month’s commitment very simple: to pursue deep, meaningful prayer on a consistent basis. I still like the idea of my pray-and-do-something-good ritual, but I need to exercise myself in its first half before the whole thing can be complete.
Now in order to have more meaningful prayers there are two specific aspects of prayer that I will be working on. The first is praying out loud. Whenever I pray out loud I am more able to connect to the moment. I am very self-conscious about it, though, and so that it means taking the time to find a private place where I am unlikely to be overheard. This will be easier in some places than in others. While I am at work will be particularly tricky, and I’m going to have to spend some time figuring out a solution there.
The other aspect I will be focusing on is to remove the temptation to finish my prayers quickly so that I can get on to the rest of my day. I am in such a rush to take care of all my errands and hobbies that I forget that they will be performed better if I have taken the time to set my foundation first. I want to get into the habit of putting the rest of the world on hold when it is time to be with God, not the other way around.
On May 1st I’ll let you know how this journey is going. I will let you know how I did at finding secret closets to pray aloud, I will let you know how I did at setting aside the to-do lists that distract me from the moment, and I will let you know how my prayers are shaping up as a result.
Well…I’m feeling very embarrassed as I write this review for last month’s commitment. There were a few times this month that I realized I had slipped from my commitment and tried to refresh it. But I did so from my memory of what that commitment was, and just now as I sat down to write this review I realized that I had been remembering it incorrectly!
I was remembering January’s commitment: doubling down on two-hour check-ins to ground myself to the moment. Which is still a great practice, and one that I do want to continue with, but that’s just not the commitment I actually made for February!
For February I had wanted to establish a ritual of prayer and then doing the first good thing I could think of. The intention was to pair my faith with action, and thus invite God’s spirit into my life. I had wanted to do this every morning, every time I changed my setting, and whenever I had felt like I had slipped from my spiritual connection.
But given that I didn’t even remember this commitment, I really didn’t follow it.
Well, I’ll just try it again. I knew this practice would take some time to become regular habit. Missteps on the path of improvement were to be expected. The proper way forward is to pick myself up, dust myself off, and continue as before.
So for March I will be renewing my commitment for February. I am going to pair it with a new reminder, though. I have set an alarm on my phone that will go off every Monday and instruct me to go and read my commitment, just to be sure that I am remembering the plan correctly and acting on it.
On April 1st I’ll let you know how I did at actually remembering the commitment, how I did at performing it, and what I saw as a result of doing so.
For January I recommitted to regular, two-hour checkins to ground myself and to refresh my efforts to live as my best self. Throughout the month I found a great deal of vitality enter my spiritual life through this practice.
During this month I also shared an epiphany that I had through the process. I had been striving to invite God’s help, but not following it with an immediate effort to do some small, good thing. Over the past weeks I have tried to correct this by beginning a new ritual where I invoke God’s help, but then pair that request by doing whatever my conscience is currently prompting me to do. It is usually a small thing, and many times I don’t understand what good is even going to be accomplished by it, but it just feels right so I do it. There is a strong sense in this of putting an offering on the altar, giving a small sacrifice to deepen the sincerity of my intentions.
Just this last week I had a moment where I was already feeling tired and depleted, but I knew the right thing was to start playing with my children. I paused to ground myself, prayed for God to come into my heart and make me alive for the task, and then paired that request with my own effort to invent a new game to play with them. And as I was in the process of giving what little I could, I felt the vitality flowing back into my heart and I was able to really lean into the moment and have a wonderful time with my children.
I want to keep chasing experiences like that.
And so this new ritual will be my guide during the month of February. I will start every day with this pattern of prayer and doing the first good thing I can think of. I will do it again each time I change my setting, such as when arriving at work or back at home. I will do it any time that I realize I am slipping into an autopilot mode of apathy and distractedness.
My goal is to make this practice become the new baseline for me. I want to repeat it so many times that it becomes routine, as standard a part of life as studying the scriptures became through doing this blog. This is the next step in my permanent development.
As with any lifestyle change, I assume this will take a lot of work and a lot of recommitment to really stick. So I’m approaching it with the mindset that this a long term effort, not just an exercise for February. In future months my checkin will likely be to modify this commitment as necessary and refresh my resolve to it. Come back at the start of March to hear how it’s going.
For December I wanted to embrace a mentality of bounty and gratitude. My commitment was to pause each day and recognize the goodness that I have all around me.
And so I tried to pause each day, and pick out a different thing I had that brought good things into my life. I considered the car that I drive to work each day, the family I come home to each night, the creative ideas I enjoy, my good health, and the ability to get the things I need and want.
I even had an entire series on this blog that was based around recognizing the good things that are given universally to us all, such as the variety of the earth, the healing potential of our hearts, and our innate desire to improve our world.
I’m sorry to say that I forgot about this goal for about half of the month, though, and I need to figure out a better process for reminding myself of it between these check-ins.
But I did find a deep sense of peace on the days that I did remember it. There was just a strong sense of “I’m really in a good place, and things are going to be okay.” I can conclude that stopping to count my blessings from time-to-time is a healthy, grounding practice, and I want to continue with it.
Of course January is often seen as a time of new beginnings, a time to recommit to self-improvement. I thought that fitting, because honestly I’ve been feeling a bit anxious about heaping too many to-do list items on myself with these monthly commitments.
So instead, I am going to double down on a commitment that I put in place during a previous month, but which I have lately become lax on. I am referring to my practice of two-hour check-ins to ground myself and set intentions for the next part of the day.
My days are better when I break them down into smaller portions and when I focus on doing right things in the moment, rather than procrastinating them to a later hour. Taking a break to connect to myself used to sound like a luxury that I couldn’t afford, but it makes me more present and more effective at everything else I need to do. And one of the things I will be adding to my pool of grounding exercises will be reflecting on the wonderful bounty I have all around me.
I’ll let you know how this recommitment goes for January at the start of next month. Here’s one New Year’s resolution that I don’t intend to give up on!
For November I wanted to get curious about my relationship with food. I want to know that part of me, and understand the reasons behind my behaviors. With other habits, I have learned that I usually have a very understandable reason for my misguided behavior. And correcting the misguided behavior without first accounting for the wound or fear that it is protecting can be quite traumatic.
And so I did some introspection this month, and I made a few important discoveries.
First off, I have “deprivation thinking.” In other words, I’m worried about there not being enough to go around, and thus having to hurry to get as much as I can. It’s not hard to imagine how I might have come across this pattern of thinking. I grew up in a family of eleven, and if one wasn’t quick the jar of cookies might be empty before you even got one!
Secondly I’ve realized that I just want to be satisfied. Some days I just want to eat a dessert that’s a perfect 10. But if I don’t have that available, then I’ll try and eat two 5s to reproduce that same experience. Obviously it doesn’t work that way, and I would be better off to go and get the one 10 instead of compensating for it with volume.
Thirdly, food is a checklist. When we buy things from the grocery store I have a sense of having invested money into it and needing to get that money’s worth. I am mortified at the thought of any going to waste. When grocery shopping is compounded with receiving extra food during the holidays, it becomes overwhelming trying to eat it all.
And lastly, food is a stimulus. If I ever feel hurt or distressed, I grow numb. And then when I’m numb, I want to feel alive again. Waking up one’s heart naturally can be hard, though, and it is tempting for all of us to rely on easier stimuli instead. Thus we turn to overeating, heavy media use, lust, extreme spending, and other destructive behaviors.
I don’t believe this list is exhaustive, but I do believe these are all very real reasons for why I have built such an unhealthy relationship with food.
So I want to start teaching myself to appreciate the bounty of the earth and the resources I’ve been personally blessed with. I want to build in myself a surety that I can take care of my needs and wants. I want to teach myself these things so that I stop being afraid of missing out and so that I don’t need to compensate for mediocrity with more mediocrity.
And it isn’t enough to just look myself in the mirror, say it once, and have my entirely frame of mind changed forever. I gained these patterns subconsciously over an extended period of time. It may take some reinforcing for this message to really sink in.
So for December I am going to recite a few mantras each day, and call out specific examples of the bounty all around me. I am going to try to reach a point of gratitude each day for all the things I already have, that I don’t need to do any further effort to secure.
I am also going to acknowledge that sometimes I am rooting for a pearl among the trash, and I will try to call out these moments as they occur. When they do, I will stop, and give myself permission to go find an actual pearl instead.
This has been a very helpful study for me. Actively striving to be more Christ-like has been a wonderful experience where I have seen found real growth and increased happiness. Many behaviors have organically improved all on their own, far more easily than I ever would have thought possible. But while there have been areas of quick growth, there have also been other areas that are far more difficult to grow in, and behaviors that have proved far more resistant to change than I had expected. And in response to those complications I have seen the rise of my old, familiar inner critic. Through this study I have found some important lessons for how to deal with these growing pains, and having this understanding has already brought me a greater sense of peace. I guess this was just another area I needed growth in! Here are the main points that stood out to me from my study.
Keep Pressing Forward)
I have never had a time where I didn’t want to improve myself, but there was a period where it was more of an idle wish than an actual intention. And even that idle wishing was incomplete, because only some flaws did I care to improve on, while others I just didn’t care about. Eventually I was woken up to my desperate need for God and a path to follow. I realized that my existence was lifeless, and would remain so unless I was actively chasing for a better me. And at that same time I realized that if I was going to give myself over to this journey, it needed to be all the way. Now I knew that I must improve myself in every area. It simply wasn’t going to cut it to overcome lust and deceit, but leave myself a guarded recluse. Nor would it do to only build meaningful relationships, but not improve the way I cared for my body. And the outcome of this is that I can take glory in the failures I experience, because it means I’m actually trying. It means I’m no longer accepting a half-lived life. Friction, after all, is not felt until one starts moving. Luke 9:62- And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. Ephesians 5:14- Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.
Be Direct, But Kind)
One of the most surprising epiphanies that came to me through this research was that the healthy way to treat someone else when they let me down is the same way I should treat myself when I let me down. It seems such a simple concept that I’m honestly embarrassed to say that this was a revelation, but really it answered so many of my questions and frustrations. Or to put it another way, the golden rule flows both directions. Yes, I should do unto others as I would have others do unto me…but also I should do unto myself as I would have others do unto me! If I do something to let someone else down, I would not want them to scream at or hurt me. Nor would I want them to deny that it was wrong of me, either. I would hope that they could be honest about their frustration, express it without hate, give clear direction as to which of my behaviors is causing the pain, and still reassure me of their unconditional love. It takes effort to do that. It can by very hard to get into a mental state that can be so vulnerable and kind. And I am sure that there will be many who never treat me that way. But at the very least, I should. Doctrine and Covenants 121:43- Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; Galatians 6:1- Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.
Ask For Help)
The final takeaway from my study was the need for surrendering. My default behavior is to believe that I have to do things myself. I am reluctant to ask for help, or to accept kindness when it is offered. Even when I was at school and didn’t understand a difficult concept, I was more likely to beat my head against the wall trying to figure out on my own instead of raising my hand and asking a question. It seems a simple logic that if I got myself into this mess, I should be able to get myself out of it. If I was able to do the behaviors that led me here, I must also be able to do the opposite behaviors to get myself back. But that just. Isn’t. True. Yes, some steps can be undone, but some make you fall down a hole that you don’t have the gear to climb out of. And it isn’t a question of if this will happen, Adam and Eve set the pattern for this Fall and each of us will follow it. We will all be down in that pit in life, in fact we’ll be there several times. So I will do my best, my absolute, genuine best. But then, as always, I will rely on grace. For there are many parts of my heart that are too deep for me to reach, and only God can change them. Psalm 55:22- Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved. 1 Corinthians 2:5- That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. 2 Nephi 25:23- For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.
My goal for this last month was to address my physical health and to rebuild my approach towards food. Specifically I committed to:
Be open with others about my efforts to change
Examine why I cope with stress through unhealthy eating
Define what behaviors ought to be considered a “slip” in my recovery
Strive to eat consciously and healthily, according to what my body genuinely needs
How I did with each of these is a mixed bag.
For #1 I spoke to my wife about my efforts…and that’s about it.
For #2 I didn’t really do anything. I guess I’ve at least I paid attention to myself, and am now fully convinced that I really do use eating as a coping mechanism! I was able to call out multiple moments where I was doing just that. I am therefore certain that this habit is primarily emotionally driven, but as for how and why I began this pattern remains a mystery.
#3 I actually did very well on. I accomplished this step early in the month, and the list that came out of it has been a real help for evaluating each day.
As for #4…well…I began each day with good intentions, but I finished many with “never mind about today, I’ll try again tomorrow.”
One of the main issues I see here is that I am not devastated about my slip-ups until some time after they occur. When that extra slice of cake is calling to me I find it very easy to say “so what? This may not be healthy, but it doesn’t hurt anybody.” Only later, when I look myself in the mirror, do I confess that yes, it actually does.
I have one other takeaway from October’s efforts. I felt very distinctly that the addict-self was tightening his hold. He felt his domain challenged, and there followed a rush of rebellion within me, an insistence that I must not surrender a behavior that has long been a security blanket.
From prior addiction recovery I understand that the way forward is not to get mean and go to war with that scared part. That part of me is undoubtedly misguided, but probably has very good reasons for believing what it believes. That part therefore requires guidance, not harshness.
And so November’s commitment is twofold.
First, I will dedicate my next topic of study to “how a Christian disciple is meant to reason with and persuade the wayward soul.” Whether that wanderer be a family member, a stranger, or a part of the inner heart, we all need to know the Christ-like way to help a lost sheep.
And secondly, I commit to carrying out the lesson from that study with my food-addict self. I will dedicate some time each week to getting to know him, understanding his story, validating his concerns, gaining his trust, and gently guiding him back to the light. Basically a more enhanced version of step #2 from last month’s commitments.
I really don’t know what I will learn from that part of me, nor do I know what I will say in response to his concerns. But I take comfort in the knowledge that I don’t have to know now. For now I just need to listen, and then let Him direct me accordingly.