A number of years ago, a friend wrote me an email that included this reminiscence:
Friday was my last day of spring break. I had worked all through the break, and really wanted to do something fun, something indulgent. I immediately thought of the only thing I have ever done when I wanted to be indulgent in past years– go to Barnes and Noble. I have always been haunted by a trip to the temple 20 or 30 years ago, and an old mission friend was along. We went to the book store, and he just loaded up with an armful of good books. I almost cried as he checked out so casually. I of course couldn’t even afford to buy one on our budget at the time. My happiest birthday memory was about 10 years ago, my wife took me to B&N, where I spent a few hours and I bought two books and we went home and lit a fire and I just read all day. Well, last Friday those thoughts came back. But you see, I have had the research stipend for 7 or 8 years now. I can buy any book I want at any time, and I have spent thousands sating every bibliographic lust I have. So last Friday, my idea about going to B&N just wilted before my eyes. I just worked instead.
It’s a sad story, of course, but I think there’s a glimmer of hope in it. The lesson I take is that it’s vital to indulge yourself at appropriate stages in your life. And, by “indulge yourself”, the kinds of things I have in mind are music, movies, books, video games and other entertainment. Things which seem profound and meaningful to use at one point in our lives can become banal and shallow after we have grown, but I would caution against trying to blindly extrapolate from this trend to mimic some imagined ideal before we’ve grown into it. We have to wait to get there.
Mormons get obsessed with this idea of progression. We think about becoming better people, and so we often try to fight to do the kinds of things better people do now, and repudiate our current nature. I think this is a mistake. In fact, I think it is a sin.
Where the language of Mosiah 4:27 (“it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength”) is tentative, the language of D&C 10:4 is starkly imperative: “Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength.” I realize the latter was perhaps given in a more specific context, but what could be more holy or worthy than the effort of translating the Book of Mormon?
Growth is indeed a purpose of our earthly existence, but attempting to emulate behavior we are not ready for is not growth. It’s actually a repudiation of growth. It’s a form of denial. Not just denial of reality (we are not as advanced as we would like to believe), but also denial of God’s plan (we are trying to skip steps that He has laid out for us).
Implicit in the idea of growth, I think, is continuity. You can’t get from Mexico to Canada by car without driving through the United States. Refusal to admit this fact, in the context of God’s plan, refusal to trust God.
Of course this is a dangerous teaching, and so I’m not surprised that it isn’t given any prominence. It’s too easily abused as a license for laziness. But the belief—the idea that we ought to accept each stage in our own development for what it is—is divine. As a person matures and grows in Christ, every step heavenward on that journey is hallowed. And we ought to embrace it and accept it and in so doing demonstrate our child-like trust in Christ.
We like to cite Paul from 1 Corinthians 13:11 (“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things”) as if Paul had said “When I was yet a child I put away childish things and thus became a man”. But that’s emphatically not what he said. What he said was that when he was a man then he put away childish things. Not before!
This is part of what it means for there to be opposition in all things, I believe. It’s not that sin as we conventionally think of it (individual acts of willful immorality) are necessary so much as that it is sinfulness which is necessary if for no other reason than simply because it stands between who we are and who we long to be. The only way forward is through. (If not sinfulness: imperfection.)
If we accept that we have to go through transitional periods of growth rather than leap-frog our way to Celestial natures, does it at least follow that faster is better? I’m not so sure. I know that I have met people who seem to progress much quicker than I do. I’ve met many fellow travelers who eschewed my penchant for popular entertainment much earlier in their lives, and who developed a much deeper taste for the sublime in literature and art when I was still engrossed in cheaper fare. I acknowledge their superiority, but what of it? Am I in a race? Or on a journey?
If a journey, then it makes sense to wish them well, but then tend to my own path. And that means that rather than wishful thinking I put one step ahead of another and trust my God that I will get home in His own due time. And, most importantly, realize that each step home is not merely a means to a final end, but that the journey itself is the end. We may be at the low point in our story-arc, but we are in the story. Can’t that be enough, at least for the present moment? Can we find solace in the derivative of perfection?
The reality is this: if we are sincere in our quest to be disciples of God, we will lose a taste for things that are not Celestial. It’s unnecessary and unhelpful to lash ourselves into a frenzy to try and vault to perfection in one leap. We lack the sensitivity to even know what that means. It would be like trying to waltz without proprioception: futile, grotesque, and ultimately expressing a lack of faith and a lack of humility. We are telling God: “You are not working in me fast enough.”
I have left behind many things that I once loved and cherished as I have grown older. I have also rediscovered the joy and beauty in others and kept them with me. I do not know which of the things that I find beautiful today will seem silly or spiritual after another decade of growth, but I firmly believe in patiently accepting God’s influence as, through the slow process of lived experience, He makes me into something better than I can imagine for myself.