African_lion

James is an editor for BYU Studies and a songwriter who recently released a single. Watch it on YouTube or download it.

Theologians speak of “static perfection” and “dynamic perfection.” Static perfection tends to narrowly restrict goodness and perfection to the “one right way.”

It is understandable that this type of perfectionism is found among Latter-day Saints. At least in some areas, they do indeed believe that there is only one right way to do things. Take baptism for instance: the Saints do not get to be all willy-nilly in how it is administered or performed. Thankfully, only a few basics, such as ordinances, require us to think in terms of the “one right way.”

Unfortunately, too many think that static perfection applies to everything else in life, too. The philosophical exercise might go like this: Take a thousand possible choices, and there will always be a hierarchy among those choices ranging from the worst possible choice (ranked down at number one thousand) up to the best possible choice (ranked number 1).

Static perfection would say that only the best possible choice is perfect. Anything less than number one is less than perfect. The paradigm of static perfection would say that our goal in life is to strive to find the one best possible choice at all times, and if we fail to do so, then we are not perfect. I feel oppressed just writing about this idea. J

On the other hand, dynamic perfection says that perfection and goodness have infinite possibilities. There is more than one choice in any given situation that is perfect. The philosophical exercise might go like this: God is creating the earth, and it is time to create the lion. Does God contemplate all the possible choices in creating a cat, and finally settle on the one and only perfect cat? No, he creates thousands of varieties, the lion being just one of them. Some are spotted, some have manes, some meow and others roar. And they are all perfect.

And so it is with choices under a dynamic perfection paradigm. There is a creative element involved. Your life need not always be like plugging in the one and only true mathematical formula in order to get out the one and only true outcome. Instead, there is a wide variety of inputs and outcomes found within the realm of perfection.

Latter-day Saints learn in their most sacred ordinances that God glories in variety and beauty, and so we should create lives after that diverse pattern. When we realize that there is more than one way to be perfect, we can relax and appreciate the gifts and talents and interests that we and others have. You are bombastic and outgoing? Perfect. You are more quiet and reserved? Perfect. You have scientific gifts? Perfect. You are creative and artistic? That’s perfect, too.

Paul says, “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all” (1 Cor. 12:4–6). I believe that variety, or as Paul says, “diversity of operations,” is a make-or-break concept that holds the key to creating a life (or church community) that is infused with a sense of liberty and happiness. A dream by Brigham Young exemplifies the principle well:

“Now I am going to tell a dream that I had, which I think is as applicable, to the people today — the 21st day of June, 1874, as when I had it. There were so many going to California, and going this way and that way, and they did not know what they wanted, and said I — ‘Stay here, we can raise our food here, I know it is a good stock country, a good sheep country, and as good a country for raising silk as there is in the world, and we shall raise some of the best of wheat. There stands a man — Burr Frost, and there is Truman O. Angell, who were present at the time.’ Said I, ‘We can raise all we want here, do not go away, do not be discouraged.’ That was when the pioneers came; the next year, it was California, California, California, California. ‘No,’ said I, ‘stay here.’

“After much thought and reflection, and a good deal of praying and anxiety as to whether the people would be saved after all our trouble in being driven into the wilderness, I had a dream one night, the second year after we came in here. Captain Brown had gone up to the Weber, and bought a little place belonging to Miles Goodyear. Miles Goodyear had a few goats, and I had a few sheep that I had driven into the Valley, and I wanted to get a few goats to put along with the sheep. I had seen Captain Brown and spoken to him about the goats, and he said I could have them. Just at that time I had this dream, which I will now relate.

“I thought I had started and gone past the Hot Springs, which is about four miles north of this city. I was going after my goats. When I had gone round the point of the mountain by the Hot Springs, and had got about half a mile on the rise of ground beyond the Spring, whom should I meet but brother Joseph Smith. He had a wagon with no bed on, with bottom boards, and tents and camp equipage piled on. Somebody sat on the wagon driving the team. Behind the team I saw a great flock of sheep. I heard their bleating, and saw some goats among them. I looked at them and thought — ‘This is curious, brother Joseph has been up to Captain Brown’s and got my goats.’ There were men driving the sheep, and some of the sheep I should think were three and a half feet high, with large, fine beautiful white fleeces, and they looked so lovely and pure; others were of moderate size, and pure and white; and in fact there were sheep of all sizes, with fleeces clean, pure and white. Then I saw some that were dark and spotted, of all colors and sizes and kinds, and their fleeces were dirty, and they looked inferior; some of these were a pretty good size, but not as large as some of the large fine clean sheep, and altogether there was a multitude of them of all sizes and kinds, and goats of all colors, sizes and kinds mixed among them.

“Joseph stopped the wagon, and the sheep kept rushing up until there was an immense herd. I looked in Joseph’s eye, and laughed, just as I had many a time when he was alive, about some trifling thing or other, and said I — ‘Joseph, you have got the darndest flock of sheep I ever saw in my life; what are you going to do with them, what on earth are they for?’ Joseph looked cunningly out of his eyes, just as he used to at times, and said he — ‘They are all good in their places.


 

’ When I awoke in the morning I did not find any fault with those who wanted to go to California; I said, ‘If they want to go let them go, and we will do all we can to save them; I have no more fault to find, the sheep and the goats will run together,’ but Joseph says, ‘They are all good in their places.’”[1]

 

Finding the Roots of Happiness

The research of a Hungarian-born doctor will show why different personal talents, interests, and creativities are at the crux of the matter in creating the abundant life. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced something like Dr. “cheeks sent me high”) wanted to know what made people happy.[2] Studies had been done before, but they were not in real time, meaning subjects only reported what they remembered making them happy.

Neuroscientists can easily show that the mechanisms of human memory are often unreliable for an empirical study. So Dr. Csikszentmihalyi and his associates passed out thousands of beepers to thousands of people and beeped them, collectively, several thousand times a day. When a person heard a beep he recorded what he was doing at that very moment and the level of happiness (or unhappiness) he was experiencing.

Subjects reported high levels of happiness when eating. They reported even higher levels of happiness when eating with close friends or family (a point well taken for those wishing to live the abundant life).

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi also discovered that people were very happy in a state he called “flow.” We might call it “being in the zone” or “getting lost in our work.” This is a state of effortlessness that comes when a person is very good at a task while still being somewhat challenged by it. Flow happens when the brain receives instant, rewarding feedback. This is why flow often comes in sports, in playing musical instruments, and in dancing. The hot basketball shooter hears swish after sweet swish and expects to hear more; the singer sets up for that high note and nails it; and with every movement the dancer feels a mind-music-body connection that is hard to describe.

Flow can happen in any field or activity. Talkers get lost in a good conversation. Problem solvers find flow in engaging the conundrum before them. Mathematicians skip more than one meal without noticing as they furiously work at their chalkboard, then eight hours later finally step back in awe at the elegance of a full chalkboard and a solved equation.

Finding Happy Lives

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s work was groundbreaking, but he was not satisfied with looking only at short-term bursts of flow. Next he wanted to study those people whose whole lives seemed to be in a flow. He interviewed hundreds of highly successful artists and scientists, those driven souls whom we all admire, who are good at what they do but also love their work deeply. These people have that elusive, magical spark — like the Mother Teresa or the Gandhi of their field. Their work is not just work; it is a mission, a labor of love. The researchers called this state of mind “vital engagement.”

Though these artists and scientists report unique journeys to their vitally engaged lives, most of them start with (1) something naturally interesting and enjoyable, and once they master the activity, it (2) takes on a greater meaning beyond the activity itself. Social relationships, values, and even a whole lifestyle surround the activity.

The Doctrine and Covenants speaks of vital engagement, and the language is eerie in its resemblance to the study: “Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward” (D&C 58:27–28, emphasis added).

This passage does not say what our cause should be, except that it should be good. It also implies that we should pick the kind of thing we are naturally “anxious” to do. The research study likewise shows that the crucial key to vital engagement is to begin with something that is naturally enjoyable. Anxious says, “I can hardly wait to get to the task.” Anxious does not need to be forced.

Pursuing What You Love Most

The problem with the idea of static perfection is that none of this creative diversity or wide variety of interests would even be allowed. Static perfection says that if you are going to be perfect, you must eventually stop being you and conform at all times to the one right way.

I suppose we could, after much discipline and meditation and willpower, learn to enjoy a life mission where you initially had little interest or talent. But why waste the time? Why not pursue the thing we are best at and love most? From the passage above, it appears that God desires us to do that very thing. Find the activity, vocation, or mission that your soul finds naturally compelling, and go for it. The gift is already within you, and any ennobling activity is potentially “perfect.” Once we find the activity that we enjoy and are truly talented in, we have found our life’s work.

True, there are areas where God does not equivocate, as with covenants and ordinances, and with the love he expects us to possess. But love of others and of life is made most apparent when we are in our element.

All must strive to conform to the basics, but how tragic to suppose that those basics crowd out the infinite variety of creative living! And while it’s true that we must continue to develop greater talents than what we now possess, that development is anything but static: repentance is usually a process of coming to a fullness, a process where we become even more full of diversity, variety, contrast, and beauty than what we possessed previously.

An example of this variety-equals-perfection principle was made apparent recently while I was composing a song called “Soul on Earth,” for my start-up band, The UpSurge. The song was all joy, all the time. As we know from Lehi, without opposition there is no joy. So I added some mystery. But then all that heavy ponderous mystery needed some humor. Then all that humor needed some solemn yearning. And all that solemnity brought me back to joy again…and so on. Now I have a song that cannot be easily defined, but at least it’s not static (I hope). J

And so it is with the kingdom of God. All sorts of personalities are involved. Everyone has at least one peculiar talent to add to the pot. All those gifts and talents make up a goulash that cannot be easily defined, but it is delicious nonetheless. And all that variety adds up to something, as a whole, resembling perfection. Dynamic perfection, that is.

James is an editor for BYU Studies and a songwriter who recently released a single. Watch it on YouTube or download it.

___________________________________________________________________

[1]. Discourse by President Brigham Young, June 21, 1874,” Deseret News, 1 July 1874, 341.


 

 

 

[2]. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s work is reviewed in Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 223–26.