Maurine Proctor’s column appears every Tuesday on Meridian.
This column is a follow-up on last week’s column “Yearning for Something You Just Can’t Find.” https://www.meridianmagazine.com/lds-church-updates/article/6369?ac=1
“I’m just not myself today.” We say that when we feel vaguely disconnected from ourselves and our life, say it when we feel out of step with our own pulse. It’s as if a piece is missing.
We may feel this in times of great stress or trial, but we are just as likely to find ourselves with our life-force ebbing in the midst of every day, maybe when the world is just too much with us.
What is this “self” that is eluding us at those times and why, when we are not connected, do we feel the water is so shallow we are wading in? Adrift, we long for shore. We long for those moments when we are fully present, fully alive, knowing that much of the time we are only half here.
We would be free. We would fly. We would soar—but somehow we are shackled and we can’t think how we got this way.
The longing is real. M. Catherine Thomas describes it this way, “We come to earth with one self and then create another on top of it, a more artificial one. So, we live with two selves that are essentially in conflict with each other.”
We have an ancient self, a knowing, wise, talented, old spirit buried within us, but most often in our frantic busyness or our numbing pursuits, we function with that other self. We respond to that second self’s demands and its pouts, its distortions of reality and its vagueness of understanding.
We think we are doing the best we can, but that ancient self is clamouring for release—and we will never be quite happy until we know how to access who we really are.
It is in that deepest, spiritual self and its connection to God that our joy lies. This is because this universe is not a random place, It is not a topsy-turvy free-for-all, where every way of being can bring joy.
It is quite the opposite. This is a universe of laws and patterns, truths that are as eternal as God is. He is God because he completely comprehends and lives those laws. Nor are we a random gathering of chemicals, a spurt of energy that blinks on and is extinguished. We are like God because we are his children. We are made a certain way. Our souls are structured to respond with joy when they are in tune with these eternal laws.
When we are out of tune or out of touch with this fundamental, underlying Reality, we do not feel quite right. Try as we may to change that, we never can. If we were to understand the science of it, we may find that it is measurable, that when we are in tune with the light that emanates from the bosom of the Lord, our own energy is heightened. The word we see in scripture that describes this is “quickened.” We are quickened by the Spirit. We are quickened to understand. We are quickened to see. “Consider how I love thy precepts: quicken me, O LORD, according to thy lovingkindness” is the plea of the Psalmist (Psalms 119: 159). When we are out of tune, we feel dimmed because we truly are.
We learn, “The light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes…[and] your understandings; which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things (D&C 88:11-13).
This light is the secret spring of the universe. It is “things as they really are.” Live out of harmony with it, and we are out of harmony with everything. Live out of harmony with it and we feel disconnected, slightly miserable, misplaced.
President Hugh B. Brown spoke of the power that comes from living with this harmony, “Sometimes during solitude I hear truth spoken with clarity and freshness; uncoloured and untranslated it speaks from within myself in a language original but inarticulate, heard only with the soul, and I realize I brought it with me, was never taught it nor can I efficiently teach it to another.”
We long for that voice Hugh B. Brown describes and our eternal identity which hears it so well.
When Christ gave the Sermon on the Mount with its series of “Blessed are the meek,” Blessed are the merciful,” “Blessed are the pure in heart,” “Blessed are the peacemakers”, there is an idea tucked in here that we sometimes miss. Another translation of “blessed are” is “oh the happiness of.” What the Lord is giving here is not a series of commandments, so much as a description of what the joyful life looks like. This is what happy people do. This is a description of what happy people are.
What we call commandments are loving letters from the Lord telling us how our souls can live in joy by living in harmony with the laws that really are. This is how God lives, and he is the happiest of us all. According to one writer, “He is in the business of happifying his children.”
Heber C. Kimball said it this way, “I am perfectly satisfied that my Father and my God is a cheerful, pleasant, lively, good-natured Being. Why? Because I am cheerful, pleasant, lively, and good-natured when I have His Spirit.”
We sometimes take our physical self, this second self that we adopted when we forgot who we are and came to earth, as our real self. We sometimes act according to the demands and prejudices of that self, but then are disappointed when we find ourselves so unsatisfied.
I saw this illustrated well in a book I was recently reading.
John Gardner, a well-known teacher of writing, was giving advice to young novelists when they were writing about how to develop characters who would have emotional significance. He told them that if the character “is clearly drawn and interesting, a lifelike human being, the reader worries about him, understands him, cares about the choices he makes.” Readers get to the point that they forget they are reading words on the printed page.” Every detail in the story will have an influence on the degree to which the characters suffer and ultimately what they choose.” Thus details must be carefully chosen and close scrutiny must be given to the character’s must trivial gestures.
He advised that the chief offense in bad fiction was to manipulate characters to do things they would not really do in order to forward a story.
Then Gardner tells his own experience, and here’s where I thought it became so instructive.
“I myself am stopped cold when I cannot make out how a character would deal with the situation presented to him.
” Once he said he was writing a novel in which the heroine was offered an hors d’oeuvre. “I couldn’t tell whether she would accept it or not,” he said, and so “I forced the issue, made her refuse it; but then I found myself stuck…It didn’t matter a particle whether she took it,” he said, but then he couldn’t write the next sentence.”
He said, “I quit writing, put the manuscript away, and took out my frustration on woodworking tools, making furniture. A week or so later, in the middle of a band-saw cut, I saw, as if in a vision, the woman taking the hors d’oeuvre. I still didn’t understand her, but I was positive I knew what she would do, and what she would do after that, and after that.”
John Gardner became stuck and could not write another word when he made his character do what she would not do. It didn’t work. It didn’t feel right. The flow of energy and creativity stopped, came to an immediate halt.
What’s funny is in a similar way, when we choose a way of being, a way of thinking and believing that is not in consonance with our true, eternal identity, we feel it, too, feel it fairly immediately. Something in us stops. Something inside us wilts. We feel worn; our life is thin like a poor man’s gruel.
Our spiritual journey is one designed not only to bring us closer to God, but also to expose the failings and misunderstandings inherent in our natural man. In this fallen world, our experience teaches what doesn’t work and never could.
The self we have developed as a citizen of a fallen world may incline us to ways of thinking and being that are very much at odds with our eternal nature. We may even claim that our “natural man” is all there is, think it is our right to live with our soul constricted. We may think we don’t want to pray, when our eternal spirit is crying out for us to pray. We may think we don’t want to forgive, when our eternal spirit is calling for unity. But somewhere we know better. Somewhere we are as uncomfortable as John Gardner was when he wrote his mistaken scene in his book.
If we do not silence it with neglect or smother it so we can no longer feel its stirrings, our deepest self cries out for expression. It propels us forward to want more spiritually. As we grow line upon line and come to higher stages of spiritual maturity, we begin to retrieve our deeper, ancient self. It stirs within us. We become at-one, no longer so divided. The light that is in and through all things is in us, too, and because we live as one with it, we are filled in a whole new way. We are quickened.
Conversely, we feel discomfited when we are not living according to our deepest nature—even if we don’t know why we are feeling so at odds with existence. We cannot live with the abundance and joy for which we are made, if we find ourselves always giving in to the natural man, or this artificial self we have developed as part of entering a physical world with the veil dropped over our minds.
Our artificial self may incline us to live trivially, but though entertained or comforted for the moment, this cannot satisfy. Our ancient spirit does not flourish in a life of trivial pursuit and in one way or another, it will cry out.
Our artificial self may incline us to live resentfully, counting the many injustices we’ve known, the disappointments that eat at us. Our ancient spirit may be bewildered at all we find wrong in a mortal experience that God so carefully designed especially for us.
Our artificial self may live fearfully, seeking and clutching for control to stop the trembling of the heart. We can tell that this is no way to find the meaning in all things and the One who gives us ultimate security.
Or we may just feel numb, disconnected, awash on a seashore without familiar landmarks. We feel like this when we are acting out of character.
We live in a day of radical individualism, when people are frantically trying to find themselves. Ironically, the only way to find yourself and feel like yourself, is to be the Lord’s, to incline toward the light until what you really are vibrates in harmony with the secret springs of the universe. There is no other way.