Some months ago my wife and I were treated during ward conference to a lesson taught by a member of the stake presidency (and not the one you’re thinking of, either). We always learn a great deal from this counselor, although, because he generally fails to think through the implications of his presentations, what we learn is typically not what he intended.
On this particular occasion he shared with us an incident from the summer of his 16th year, directed to the topic of perserverence. Addressing himself most especially to the youth of the ward, he described how he had decided, over the objections of his parents, to join an outfit selling encyclopedias door to door in a remote area of the country. After weeks of fruitless effort, having sold only one encyclopedia subscription, he considered whether his parents had perhaps been right and he should perhaps give up and return home. But he determined, as he put it “not to go home to his parents with his tail between his legs,” and instead to stick with his decision. He said he that is was a turning point in his life as he learned a valuable lesson in “finishing what you start.”
Our first thought on hearing this story was to wonder whether he had really intended for the youth of the ward to internalize he underlying message of his tale: that is, if your parents advise against a course of action, ignore them and do what you think best; it will turn out they’re wrong, and it will prove to be a positive experience in the end.
But our second thought was to wonder whether it was even a good idea for the youth to internalize the explicit message of his tale: to stick with a bad decision even after you realize it was bad, rather than having the courage and humility to quit. It may be that our stake presidency counselor learned a valuable lesson in perserverence by sticking with his hopeless task of encyclopedia sales for the summer. But it might also be that he would have learned more important lessons by returning home (not to mention possibly getting a more lucrative and enjoyable summer job).
Bruce Hafen tells the story of how he desperately wanted to be a world-class shot-putter, but he was simply physically to small — it really was hopeless. What a tragedy if he had wasted his life becoming a mediocre shotputter instead of a successful attorney, scholar and distinguished academic administrator. I once had much the same experience trying to become a bench scientist; I love science but am relatively poor at doing it. After considerable fruitless effort at getting the experiments to behave themselves, I finally redirected my energies into a different field that I found I am relatively good at.
Nonetheless, I cannot count the number of sacrament meeting talks on perserverence and positive thinking that poetically admonish us, generally in the sing-song iambic tetrameter that seems to characterize sacrament meeting doggerel, to “get up, get up, and win the race.” Why do we so often tell people this, rather than telling them to bag the race and take up badminton or chess or needlepoint or something where they can make a real contribution? The charge of the light brigade against impossible odds was glorious and heroic in song, but stupid and counterproductive in fact; they got themselves slaughtered and lost the battle. A pity that they didn’t give up and live to fight another day.