My mother-in-law struggled with mental illness in the later years of her life. Specifically bipolar schizophrenia. A beautiful, faithful, courageous, and spirited soul, it was hard to see her struggle and suffer so much. Shiloh and I did everything we could think of to help, but oftentimes the situation was beyond our fixing. Some of the details of what happened during those years are still too tender to share.
In one particularly rough moment, she told Shiloh that he would never be successful because of the way she perceived he was treating her. It was heartbreaking for a son to hear that from his mother. This was a woman who had always told him he could do and be anything because of how special and wonderful he was. In fact, he built most of his life on that promise from his mother. He could do anything because his mom believed in him. To hear her rescind that promise and curse him with failure, even understanding she was ill and not completely cognizant of her language, was a crushing blow.
He struggled with being and feeling successful for many years after that. It held him back from reaching for his true potential, and cursed most projects before they even began. After she left this life, finally relieved of her embodied suffering, Shiloh spent a few months trying to navigate the tumultuous seas of years of unresolved emotions. He shared with me one day just how deeply he felt her curse had affected him. It was raw, and a powerful release of over a decade of pain. He finally opened himself up to the idea that maybe she was wrong. Maybe her perception based on what her life looked like to her had nothing to do with reality, for her or for him.
It’s been a long road, and we aren’t at the end of it yet. He’s still healing and finding new strength. His tenacity and righteous desire is awe inspiring, especially when the “go and do” part feels like an insurmountable task. I know he’s not the only one that has struggled with this. Fighting against failure is often the default position, and all it leaves us with is a feeling of urgency, a perceived need for hustle. We’re unhappy because we’re chasing a carrot we subconsciously don’t really believe we deserve. We try to use mantras and affirmations to change this deep belief, but it doesn’t really ever work the way we want it to. Why?
This isn’t a new problem. Our original narratives set us up for this.
And unto Adam, I, the Lord God, said: Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the fruit of the tree of which I commanded thee, saying—Thou shalt not eat of it, cursed shall be the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.
Thorns also, and thistles shall it bring forth to thee, and thou shalt eat the herb of the field.
By the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, until thou shalt return unto the ground—for thou shalt surely die—for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou wast, and unto dust shalt thou return (Moses 4:23–25).
These verses have always seemed a little off to me. I don’t know what really happened, whether the creation story is literal or figurative, but I do believe there is a lot to learn from it. I have to start by asking myself if this “curse from God” makes sense? He created the world and declared it good. Now, because the first of us made a mistake, he’s going to declare it all to be cursed? God is bigger than that.
This scripture, like most scriptures, is descriptive rather than prescriptive. God doesn’t curse the land because of us. He is describing to us the primal belief, the perception of ourselves which we developed after the fall, which humanity will prove to struggle with all of its days, and which he ultimately calls us to leave behind.
This false perception of this sphere of existence really messes with us. Urgency, scarcity, and an underlying belief that if we aren’t anxiously engaged in things then we aren’t being who we are supposed to be, have got us spinning around in circles, grasping for bits of earthly knowledge, and working our lives away trying to fight off the failure. As we age, we lose our childlike wonder and awe, and we’re okay with it somehow thinking we know better now that life is just plain complicated.
We’ve created our own complexity and then lived into it as if that is reality. The truth is, the gospel is simple. It’s unhurried, and abundant. It is so big, bigger than anything we feel confronted with here. And it’s so simple, comfortable and soft, full of wonder and awe. It is only our small perceptions that make everything else feel so urgent. This is the natural man, which makes us feel like we have to grow up and live complex adult lives.
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child (Mosiah 3:19).
Our culture imprints on us the concepts of scarcity and urgency from an early age. Endless hero stories of those who have faced trials and overcome them. No one is as worthy as someone who has dealt with intense struggle, worked nauseatingly hard, and produce something good as a result. There’s nothing wrong with these stories, except that in application they’ve created a culture of one-path-fits-all. Find something challenging and fight, fight fight, until you win. The majority of our stories, songs, and poems declare the same narrative. And if you aren’t fighting, then you’re lazy. Slothful. The measure of a man is how hard he’s worked for what he’s got.
But children are different. Before being broken by all of our stories of the fight against failure, a story which begun with Adam and we’ve been repeating ever since, children are innately full of wonder and amazement. Every breath of air, every creeping and flying thing, every new vista, inspires awe and joy to a child. It is in the wonder and the awe that we find peace to our souls. We find comfort in the arms of a vast universe which is big enough to hold us and all of our problems. It is no surprise that Christ proclaimed the inseparable connection between children and peace when he said that it is the children of God who are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).
Christ’s invitation is to trust that God is good. Trust that everything is as it should be. Things we perceive as bad or wrong will inevitably pop up. We’ll struggle with these interpretations, and we’ll grow. All is well. When we target-fixate on the struggle we interpret our world as an enemy, something to be subdued and overcome, instead of something to be embraced and find joy in.
I often find that turning our usual narratives upside down for a minute can reveal great truths. Remember Lehi and the Tree of Life? Traditionally, we’ve always made the people in the spacious building seem like they are lazy, just eating, drinking, and making merry. But what if we looked at it another way.
Lehi looks pretty lazy sitting over there under that tree calling out to people. Those who have spent their whole lives working, spinning, toiling, and striving, who have built a large and spacious building, look from across the murky water and laugh at Lehi and those who are with him. “Don’t those fools sitting under the tree realize how much they are missing? Don’t they know that there is so much more to this life than just sitting in wonder and awe at some tree and passing around the fruit? Look up here, guys! Look at everything we have, everything the world can give you. If you just fight for it you can have all of this too!” Or even more deceptive, “Don’t they realize that God needs them to always be busy working at building God’s kingdom? God needs our help and if we slow down he won’t be able to save his children!”
I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.
And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.
And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost (1 Nephi 8:26–28).
Shame. That is what it feels like. When you finally sense that there is something bigger than the rat race, and you slow down to take in the beauty of this world that God declared to be good, the urgency creeps back in and tells us to be ashamed of ourselves. Hurry, get back to work. Don’t waste any more time. And now I feel behind. Anxiety. It’s all so heavy! Depression. I must work harder. There’s no time for quiet contemplation. No time for God. But I’m supposed to make time for God. Here, let me schedule him in.
It doesn’t need to be that way. Humans have built many incredible edifices of stone and steel, large and spacious buildings of their own design. And as amazing as all of that is, God gives us a tree. There is nothing slothful about taking the time to partake of God’s love, and then using that love to inform and inspire our daily efforts. We may even find that the good fruit produced looks like great earthly creations and accomplishments. But truly good fruit can only come from good trees. How we accomplish things is just as important as what we accomplish.
He prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished (1 Nephi 17:41).
And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us (Romans 5:1–5).
We can put God first and look to Christ in all things. Have hope. He will show us an easier way, because his yoke is easy and his burden light. We can get our wonder and awe back. We can slow down, sit by the tree, and eat the fruit. We can act and progress, help others and ourselves. We can even do everything needful for living in this world and have sufficient for our needs. All without the rush, without the hustle.
The fruit, the love of God, is all we ever need. Filled with the love of God we will naturally be productive, because that’s what good trees do. We will desire all to receive it. We will share, give, lift, experience the world, produce good fruit of our own, and continue to grow, all without the need for the enemies of urgency and scarcity. In fact, we find we don’t have any enemies at all. The premise of life is not fighting failure, it is enjoying abundance. There is enough fruit for everyone. Come, and partake.
Peace can prevail only when that natural inclination to fight is superseded by self-determination to live on a loftier level (Russell M Nelson, “Blessed are the Peacemakers”).
Try it. Slow down a little. Take a walk. Meditate on the goodness of creation and the vastness of God. Perform your labors with exactness, and also with peace and joy. There is time for it all. Give yourself some grace and have a new experience. Though we perceive scarcity and urgency, which trouble our souls and make us afraid, our Savior promises us peace. Not in some distant future after all we can do, but right here, and right now.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid (John 14:27).