Clinging to Misery
by H. Wallace Goddard

You’ve probably heard that the natural man is an enemy to God. (While there is less evidence to support the idea, it is probably true that the natural woman is also an enemy to God.) If we are not changed by the Spirit of God, we are enemies to goodness. We always have been and always will be (See Mosiah 3:19).

This “natural” tendency clearly applies to our behavior. We mortals are inclined to be self-serving and self-centered. We “go crushing blossoms without end” (Edward Sill).

The natural tendency seems to apply to human thinking just as much as human acting. Just as my tongue cannot resist caressing a broken tooth even when it clearly is cutting up my tongue, so human minds will not leave alone the idea or feeling that disturbs them. Our natural way of thinking makes us enemies to God.

Anger is a good example. We tend to process our grievances endlessly. I cannot say it any better than Frederick Buechner said it:

Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you. (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, Harper & Row)

Recent research clearly shows that being angry or hostile magnifies our risk of heart problems. The Lord does not recommend anger. He has warned “that whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of his judgment” (3 Nephi 12:21).

Worry is another example of “natural” thinking. We love to worry about all those things that seem to be national epidemics–based on the news. Dr. Leonard Sigal has perceptively written:

Lyme disease, although a problem, is not nearly as big a problem as most people think. The bigger epidemic is Lyme anxiety. (The New York Times on the Web, Wednesday, June 13, 2001)

School shootings are another area of exaggerated concern.

71 percent of people responding to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll believed that a school shooting was likely in their community. In reality, there is a one in 2 million chance of being killed in a school shooting. (May, 2001. “News Distorts Youth, Reports Say.” Youth Today, 10, (5), p. 6.)

Air safety is a popular arena for fear.

In the entire history of commercial aviation, dating back to 1914, fewer than 13,000 people have died in airplane crashes. Three times that many Americans lose their lives in automobile accidents in a single year. The average person’s probability of dying in an air crash is about 1 in 4 million. . . . A person is ten times more likely to die in his or her bathtub than in an airplane accident. (emphasis added; Barry Glassner (1999). The Culture of Fear. New York: Basic Books.)

The media put a magnifying glass on problems. Or maybe it is a telescope. A problem with miniscule probabilities soon eclipses everything else in the universe. But this is not a new human tendency. I have heard it said that the Mormon pioneers suffered more from worry about hunger than they ever suffered from actual hunger.

It remains popular among humans to fret about the things we don’t have. It may be called envy, jealousy, coveting, or rivalry. The concern often takes the form: “If I just made more money . . .”

Research suggests that having more money will not increase your happiness unless you have been going hungry. Money simply is not a source of happiness. In contrast, Csikszentmihalyi has suggested that optimal human experience happens when people challenge their abilities in some task. Whether it is a project at work or a hobby pursued at home, we can become so engaged in a task that we lose track of time. He calls it flow. Growth is better than wanting. Maybe that is why the Lord has recommended contribution over cash as the focus of our labors:

But the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money they shall perish. (2 Nephi 26:31)

As humans we act as if we believe that Woody Allen had accurately portrayed our options:

More than any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

The Lord’s prescription for latter-day panic is surprisingly simple: “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36). What a remarkably focused formula! It is only by looking to Christ that we can deal with the desolating scourge of doubt and fear.

President Gordon B. Hinckley gave related counsel:

I believe [the Lord] is saying to each of us, be happy. The gospel is a thing of joy. It provides us with a reason for gladness. Of course there are times of sorrow. Of course there are hours of concern and anxiety. We all worry. But the Lord has told us to lift our hearts and rejoice. I see so many people . . . who seem never to see the sunshine, but who constantly walk with storms under cloudy skies. Cultivate an attitude of happiness. Cultivate a spirit of optimism. Walk with faith, rejoicing in the beauties of nature, in the goodness of those you love, in the testimony which you carry in your heart concerning things divine. (Gordon B. Hinckley, “If Thou Art Faithful,” Ensign, Nov. 1984, 91-92)

For a non-believer, this may all look like denial. The world recommends that we study and confront problems. The Lord recommends that we let Jesus change the kind of people we are.

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, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19, emphasis added.)

Satan must laugh as he keeps us worried about all the wrong things. We worry about airline crashes more than listening to a troubled child; we fret about world conflict more than our home teaching; we worry about money more than about prayer.

Perhaps anxiety, fear, resentment, and envy are all distractions to keep us from the power that can both guide us and save us. We might pray, as Fosdick did, “Fill us with Thyself, that we may no longer be a burden to ourselves” (The Meaning of Faith, p.213).

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