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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

To Brim With Joy

Oof.

It's been a wee while since I last posted. I blame part of it on this cute mug:


He has captured my heart and my sleep. During this sweet adjustment period, I have become lax in most areas of my life except those most pressing. I still write sketches, I still go to work, I still brush my teeth (most of the time)--but spiritual matters have faded into the hazy cloud that hovers over my duties of caring for this sweet boy and putting food on the table. However, with that fading process, I've noticed that my spiritual senses have become somewhat numbed. That's how Satan gets you, isn't it? You never feel bad when you go a day without reading your scriptures, you just don't feel good.

These last couple weeks, I've finally noticed my numbness and have tried to regroup and collect those pieces of my discipleship that have slipped away from me. Taking inventory of our weaknesses is never any fun, but I find it an essential step in filling our inventory of strengths.


In taking this inventory, I kept thinking of Elder Larry R. Lawrence's talk last General Conference, “What Lack I Yet?” I loved this talk. It hit me like a ton of bricks when I first heard it. He asked us to prayerfully ask God what we lack and to listen. “Humbly ask the Lord the following question: 'What is keeping me from progressing?' ... Then wait quietly for a response. If you are sincere, the answer will soon become clear. It will be revelation intended just for you.”

I followed that counsel last October and received a very specific prompting. This last week, I received the same prompting again: I need to refrain from criticizing people and my circumstances. It was such a powerful prompting because, as I paid attention to my actions, I realized that the Spirit worded it as "criticism." I don't necessarily badmouth others, but I sometimes criticize, thinking I am authorized to shed light on others' idiosyncrasies that encroach upon my life/comfort/self-esteem. Similarly, I realized that I have a bad habit of finding the annoying aspects of every situation I experience: If Theodore sleeps particularly well one night, I am frustrated that he doesn't sleep that well every night; if I write a sketch that gets approved, I am bothered that it took so long to edit before everyone was happy with it; if I have a chance to stay home with my boy during a long shoot, I wonder why I wasn't cast in that particular sketch. On and on and on.
Sounds exhausting, doesn't it? It is!

I finally realized I needed to change when I read my patriarchal blessing, which says, “I bless you to find happiness and thrill with the experiences of everyday life." The part that made me pause was the wording, “to find happiness.” In my tired, lazy state, I kept expecting my circumstances to fuel my good feelings. As David A. Bednar put it, I needed to become an agent who acts rather than an object that is acted upon (“In the Strength of the Lord”). The fact that this was in my personal blessing reminded me that Heavenly Father knows this can be a strength of mine, if I actively pursue it and exercise my spiritual muscles to become the woman my patriarchal blessing paints me to be.

So, in my quest to find happiness, I decided to start in my most familiar place of study--Neal A. Maxwell. And he did not disappoint! He has a talk titled, “Brim with Joy,” which has stoked the fire of my spirit and enabled me to take control of my circumstances and fill my life with joy! Let's dissect the talk together, shall we?

Trying to Find Joy in the Wrong Places
First, Maxwell points out wells from which we might try to draw for happiness, but which will give us nothing.

Satisfying the Natural Man
This point hit me particularly hard because when we are not actively feasting on the word of Christ, when we are not actively following His teachings, we are aimless. This is the haze that I mentioned earlier. Instead of searching for joy, we search for pleasure--some momentary activity that will distract us from being bored. Elder Maxwell addresses this misguided search:
A major point about joy is that joy is obviously of a higher order than mere pleasure. Pleasure is perishable. It has a short shelf life. Mere pleasure is not lasting because it is constantly feeding on itself. Thus the appetites of the natural man, though frequently fed, are never filled. For instance, even as gluttony digests its latest glob, it begins anticipating its next meal. The same pattern prevails with regard to the praise of men, to lust, and to greed. Strange as it seems, so far as the carnal pleasures are concerned, the very act of their consumption insures the cancellation of their satisfactions. They just do not last!
Joy, on the other hand, is lasting. It involves the things that really matter.

Everyday when I wake up, I have the goal to read my scriptures. However, I often wake to find new text messages on my phone, which then prompt me to check my email and see who else is contacting me. I then open Instagram to check on my other friends' lives and to see what they might have said about my recent posts. Before I know it, I've exhausted myself on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, Etsy, Amazon, and even the Weather app. I've expended my energy on frivolous fluff and neglected to use that precious time to study precious things. I've stopped working for things that are the most important and instead have idled away my time on stuff to keep me from being bored.
Maxwell emphasizes gospel joy to combat this natural man mentality:
[A] great advantage of joy, contrasted with pleasure, is that joy overrides routine, which, otherwise, could make us bored. We don’t know, for instance, how many times Heavenly Father has been through the plan of salvation before with other of His children elsewhere before our particular sequence on this planet. God even hints at the repetitiveness of His redemption when He says, “[My] course is one eternal round” (see 1 Nephi 10:19; Alma 7:20; D&C 3:2). Yet God is never bored by what might seem mere routine. Why? Because of His perfect love for His children! What He calls “my work and my glory” brings abundant and pure joy! (see Moses 1:39).
... We will also avoid the problem Paul cited of members who fainted in their minds and who grew weary. We have a special promise concerning how to avoid getting weary intellectually. The Doctrine and Covenants says if we are faithful and if we will share the gospel, we “shall not be weary in mind” (D&C 84:80). What a great blessing! We avoid weariness. We avoid boredom. These are more of the many advantages of the gospel.
What amazing insight! As monotonous as I may think it may be to read the Book of Mormon for the 10th time, I need to remember that this may be the 1000th time Heavenly Father has guided His children through mortality. How many prayers has He heard from His children (heck, even just from me) about getting over a cold? Passing a test? Hoping to get asked out on a date? As petty as these circumstances seem when I line them all up like that, I know when I've prayed for each of these things, they were extremely important to me. The beauty is that that meant they were extremely important to my Heavenly Father. How does He do it? How does He individualize each one of us and not treat this batch of kids like a herd of cattle doing the same thing that's been done for dozens of millennia? If Heavenly Father can find the joy in this work, I can try to emulate Him and do the same.

And sharing the gospel can be a great tool in combatting this boredom. Why do you think I write these spiritually minded blog posts? I'm afraid my motives are not that altruistic. I write these so that I can rejuvenate my spirit and enliven my soul to fall in love with this gospel again.

Comparison
Another well from which I draw for "happiness" is to compare how well I am doing (physically, spiritually, temporally, or otherwise) compared to someone else. Comparison is a dangerous beast we feed that can never be satisfied. I often fall prey to this mindset because of the work I am doing. Sometimes it's put right in front of my face. Just a couple months ago, I was being evaluated by certain employers based on how many people scream for me at Comic Con, or how many followers I have on my Instagram page, or how many views my sketches get on YouTube. It was the easiest way to place a value on my contribution to the show, but it sucked. I came home every day feeling worthless because I didn't have as many followers as someone else or because my sketches didn't go viral as often as someone else--blah blah blah blah blah. It all sounds so petty, doesn't it? That's because it IS! As Malcolm Muggeridge said, “I am like a man on a sea voyage nearing his destination. When I embarked I worried about having a cabin with a porthole, [and] whether I should be asked to sit at the captain’s table, who were the more attractive and important passengers. All such considerations become pointless [because] I shall soon be disembarking.” In the eternal scheme of things, none of these things matter. I am a wife, a mother, a sister, a friend, and a daughter of God. These titles are what truly matter! But when my superiors told me I am only worth so much because of these contributions, it made it very hard to keep from feeling worth less than the person next to me. That's why this quote struck me particularly hard due to my line of work:
“This craving for praise and popularity too often controls actions, and as [people] succumb they find themselves bending their character when they think they are only taking a bow” (N. Eldon Tanner).
I found myself driven by a desire to please the faceless likes on social media. I do not like to think of this period of time because when I look back on it, I am reminded how trivial and spiteful I can become when reduced to analyses of how I measure up to those around me.

Elder Maxwell specifically addresses how acquiring joy can help us combat comparison by individualizing us:
“Joy not only helps us do our gospel duties but it increases our individuality. It is sinners who reflect such a stale sameness. Righteousness lends itself to individuality. Think, in contrast, of poor Lemuel, who 'hearkened unto the words of Laman.' He was Laman’s satellite. One wonders if poor Lemuel ever had any thoughts of his own.”
Envy is not a very unique trait, especially in today's world. What is unique is an ability to find one's worth regardless of external circumstances.

Another consequence of this narrow perspective of comparison is that it robbed me of my love for those dear people I was envying. The Studio C cast is a close knit family; they are some of the best people I know. I hate that I forgot that in all the business of comparison and protecting my ego. As Elder Maxwell says, “A fascinating thing about joy and love, with which you are surely familiar, is that when we enlarge our capacity to love, other people become real individuals, not merely functions.”

As I focused instead on the people around me instead of how those people made me look, I realized that I was two-dimensionalizing sons and daughters of God who have often demonstrated a more godly way of life. I then resolved to stop worrying about my own insecurities and to focus on how to help these other cast members, who were going through their own trials of measurement in our workplace. I still struggle with this mentality at work, but I've come to realize that “…when you and I extend genuine empathy to someone else, we are emancipated from the full weight of our own cares. Then our souls, too, are enlarged without hypocrisy” (Maxwell).

Trying to Find Joy in the Right Places
So, after exploring all of my failures in my quest for happiness, I now want to elaborate on what Elder Maxwell suggested are the right places to find joy. The first coincides with my previous comments on focusing on others.

Charity
This is easily the hardest commandment for me. It is so easy to stay in my own bubble and not look outside at those who need assistance. One of the easiest ways to assist others is to buoy them up and to remind them of their divine worth and that they are loved. Elder Maxwell put it this way,
“One of the great things you and I can do for family and friends is to contribute regularly to their storehouses of self-esteem by giving deserved and specific commendations and encouragement.”
That is how Heavenly Father motivates us to become better than we are; He does not rub our noses in our mistakes and make us dwell on where we completely fail, but He encourages and roots for us until we rise to the level of living He knows we can achieve. What a joyful way to imitate our Heavenly Father's perfect nature! What a beautiful trait we can learn!

I know when we focus on others, we will feel a much greater joy than we ever could focusing on
ourselves! As G.K. Chesteron said,
“How much larger your life would be if [you] could become smaller in it. . . . You would begin to be interested in [others]. You would break out of this tiny . . . theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.”
Following Christ's Commandments
Christ's commandments are not a random arrangement of hoops for us to jump through as He laughs at our naiveté. They are there so that we may be happy! Elder Maxwell aptly categorizes the commandments and their purposes:

One way of looking at the “thou shalt not” commandments, therefore, is that these are prohibitions which help us avoid misery by turning us away from that which is wrong. Once we become settled in terms of the direction in which we face, and once the telestial sins are left behind, the focus then falls upon the sins of omission. Committing these robs us of joy.
I've taken a moment to note some thou shalt commandments to which I need to pay particular attention:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matthew 22:37).
“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:39).
“Thou shalt give heed unto all his words” (D&C 21:4).
“Be of good cheer” (D&C 78:18).
“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).
“Therefore, strengthen your brethren in all your conversation, in all your prayers, in all your exhortations, and in all your doings” (D&C 108:7).

These are commandments that will make me happy, instead of just keeping me from being sad. It is, as Maxwell has said before, the way to “be living abundantly and not just existing” (“The Pathway of Discipleship”).

One of the byproducts of following Christ's commandments is that we will receive revelation, like the revelation Elder Lawrence talks about in asking what we lack. “Revelation is one of the great realities of gospel living, and it is so productive of joy” (Neal A. Maxwell). It was revelation that prompted me to start this quest to find happiness. It was revelation that prompted Joseph Smith to pray in a grove of trees, which opened the last dispensation.

This gospel is a glorious one! It calms us, strengthens us, challenges us, and endows us with divine power. It rejuvenates us by reminding us that we are not drones mindlessly completing the tasks of the day, but that we are immortal souls with the potential to become like God! This mindset truly makes me feel, as Maxwell puts it, alive:
The phrase “alive in Christ” describes individuals whose aliveness is enhanced by their righteousness. We are the most joyful when we are the most alive. And Jesus, because He was the most empathic, most loving, most forgiving, and the most appreciative individual to ever live on this planet, has a perfect fullness of joy. No wonder He instructs us, “What manner of men [and women] ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Nephi 27:27). He wants us to have great joy.
With Christ, we can truly live! We can influence people, places, and situations to reach their highest potentials, thereby making this world a more godly place! I don't know why I keep forgetting this life-saving truth! Every time I turn my focus back to the Lord, I am filled with joy. Every time. It is proven again and again when I get sluggish, lose focus, and then regain my footing. The only true source of joy in this life is Jesus Christ. All else pales in comparison!

Even when I am not being sluggish but, rather, am in the midst of affliction (like my situation at work), Maxwell reminds us that nothing is too grand to overshadow the joy we can experience with the Lord:
When we reach a point of consecration, our afflictions will be swallowed up in the joy of Christ. It does not mean we won’t have afflictions, but they will be put in a perspective that permits us to deal with them. With our steady pursuit of joy and with each increasing measure of righteousness, we will experience one more drop of delight—one drop after another—until, in the words of a prophet, our hearts are “brim with joy” (Alma 26:11). At last, the soul’s cup finally runs over!
Christ, above all, had reason to feel sorrow. He was betrayed, reviled, and abandoned.
This perfect Son who had never spoken ill nor done wrong nor touched an unclean thing had to know how the rest of humankind—us, all of us—would feel when we did commit such sins. For His Atonement to be infinite and eternal, He had to feel what it was like to die not only physically but spiritually, to sense what it was like to have the divine Spirit withdraw, leaving one feeling totally, abjectly, hopelessly alone. (Jeffrey R. Holland)
And yet, Christ brings with Him a message of incomprehensible joy. As Elder Holland continues, “Because Jesus walked such a long, lonely path utterly alone, we do not have to do so” (“None Were With Him”). So, as Elder Maxwell expounds, “You will be able to say... even though things perplex and vex you even beyond your capacity to resolve them at times, 'It is all right.' Thereby you will be acknowledging the hand of God. For His hand is a loving hand, stretched out to love and to lead us, if we will, into a fullness of joy.”

I could go on about the circumstantial blessings of my family, job, and health that bring me joy, but I want to shed light on the blessings to which we all are privy that made our premortal spirits "[shout] for joy" (Job 38:4-7):

  • We have an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Heavenly Father who loves us above all of His other creations.
  • Our Father created this beautiful earth and the creatures in it for our enjoyment and enrichment.
  • Our Father wants us to return to live with Him and to have eternal joy.
  • Our Father wants to give us all that He has.
  • In order to properly receive all that He has, our Father has let us make our own decisions so that we can learn through experience how to become like Him.
  • Our Father gave each of us specific gifts that make us unique and that will help us and others return to Him.
  • Our Father provides us with challenges that will strengthen our characters to be more like His.
  • Our Father wants us to live with our families after this life, creating an eternal support system.
  • Our Father has provided a Savior for us so that we may overcome our mistakes and shortcomings and live with Him with a fulness of joy.

I mean HOLY CRAP! What a wonderful life we have, right?! Elder Maxwell (much more eloquently) tries to capture his enthusiasm for the gospel:
I have often tried to describe, though feeling inarticulate, how the gospel creates excitement in us. In that connection may I share this attempt with you?
No wonder, given its intellectual expansiveness, we are still inventorying the harvest basket of the Restoration! Having dashed about the wonder-filled landscape of the Restoration, exclaiming and observing, it should not surprise us if some of our first impressions prove to be more childish than definitive. Brushing against such tall timber, the scent of pine is inevitably upon us. Our pockets are filled with souvenir cones and colorful rocks, and we are filled with childish glee. There is no way to grasp it all. Little wonder some of us mistake a particular tree for the whole of the forest, or that in our exclamations there are some unintended exaggerations. We have seen far too much to describe. Indeed, we “cannot say the smallest part which [we] feel” (Alma 26:16).
I (halfheartedly) apologize for not condensing my thoughts into a shorter read, but all of my posts are my journeys toward patience, diligence, righteousness, and joy. I know that if I will follow my Savior's teachings with passion and purpose, I will experience joy far greater than what I've been waiting around expecting from my circumstances. And, I've got pretty awesome circumstances.

I mean, come on.