Tag Archives: optimism

The Wisdom of the Sunflower

We were driving through the desert, passing by the dry bed of an alkaline lake in the Great Basin. Fifty feet from the roadway, there was a forbidding desert landscape full of sagebrush and cactus. And yet, at the edge of the pavement there were tall, palm-of-the-hand-sized sunflowers.

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I love sunflowers. I never cease to admire the way they can thrive in harsh environments. Their welcome splash of bright color stands out against the muted browns and greens surrounding them, and as a foreground for hazy blue mountains in the distance.
No matter how forbidding the environment in which they grow, they are always seeking the light.
Do you know people like that? I do. Some grew up in very harsh, unloving, even dangerous environments, and yet they thrived. The reason? They sought out the light. They have made productive lives for themselves and made important, lasting contributions in other lives as well.
Does that sound like a Pollyanna outlook? Once upon a time I might have said so, but living with an unfailing optimist for 50 years has changed my thinking. I have learned that always expecting things to turn out darkly does not accomplish anything and may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of expecting the worst, why not work toward the best possible outcome?

A very wise man I respect as a prophet of God used to repeat this advice from his father: “Cynics do not contribute, skeptics do not create, doubters do not achieve.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, former president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)
I may be a natural-born skeptic and something of a pessimist, but experience has taught me this: the solutions to my problems in life are found not in lamenting the darkness, but in seeking out the light.

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We love the dawning light.

Our eternal spirits crave

the constant illumination

that comes from Heavenly Father.

No one can take His light from us.

Sometimes we give it up

for lesser, faded things,

until we find ourselves

locked in lives of darkness. 

But when we choose the light

we can see with sharpening view

the everlasting glory

He wants to share with us.

“Save the government”

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When our third- and fourth-grade grandchildren come over to visit, they like to play in the unfinished room in our basement. Sometimes they set up the card tables and chairs to play “school,” or “store,” or “city government.” I was a bit shocked and saddened a couple of days ago to find two signs they had posted on the wall: “Save the government,” and “Make it so terror does not become the government.”

I wondered: Are we adults responsible for this? Have we somehow instilled in them such anxiety about what is going on in the world that they fear for their freedom? Is this the legacy national leaders are leaving to children—doubt and fear?

Children should not have to worry that their way of life—freedom as they know it—is going to disappear.

They hear, and they know. Times have been tumultuous recently, especially in the political arena. Our resolve and our commitment to a democratic republic have been tested, and the tests are ongoing.

Integrity seemed to be an early casualty in the 2016 election campaign. Honesty and civility suffered severe setbacks. Freedom of speech and thought are under ongoing attack.

But I still have confidence in the right to think and speak what we believe to be right. I have hope that in the end this freedom will prevail.

Now, I am a natural-born pessimist. I tend to believe Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” I live prepared for people to disappoint me, seeking their own welfare first and foremost, ignoring the common good. (And how often, I have to ask, am I guilty of this?)

Fortunately, my wife–ever the optimist in our home–balances me out.

But as I have gotten older, I have become more optimistic. I have come to realize more and more that living in expectation of trouble is no way to build a worthwhile life. If you want happiness, look for it, seek it out, and if necessary, make it yourself. If you don’t want to be weighed down by gloom at the end of the day, look for happiness and joy along the way. They are there when you pay attention. Did you find them in the slant of early light through the trees this morning? In the mother at the store with a young child, or children, curiously and delightedly getting to know the world around them? In a quiet opportunity to read and ponder great ideas?

More and more I have tried to implement in my life the counsel of a man I accepted and honored as a prophet of God. Gordon B. Hinckley taught: “There is a terrible epidemic of pessimism in the land. . . . I come . . . with a plea that we stop seeking out the storms and enjoy more fully the sunlight.” He shared this counsel from his wise father: “Cynics do not contribute, skeptics do not create, doubters do not achieve.”

We can all learn from our mistakes, of course, and we all have need to repent of our sins and errors. But when we look at those mistakes, do we also consider the good that may have come from our more selfless actions?

Struggle in this life begins when we are very young, and it will continue as long as we live on earth. After more than 70 years of facing it, the only useful approach I see to dealing with this struggle is simply to keep going on. Move forward. When you keep moving forward, you eventually reach your goals.

Again, I have come to rely on the counsel of Gordon B. Hinckley: “Keep trying. . . . Be believing. Be happy. Don’t get discouraged. Things will work out.”

That is a lesson I hope to help my grandchildren learn.



Where Will You Sink Your Roots?

Yllwstn 16Se14_0084Sometimes the difference between thriving and dying is in where we sink our roots.

True, the trees in Yellowstone could not control where their seeds fell. But we, unlike the trees, can control where we sink our roots. We do not have to extend them down into the poisonous lake.

I know people who have chosen to sink their roots into bitter, poisonous waters. They are bitter or angry at other people or at God, whom they feel let them down. Perhaps something that they wanted—fervently desired—did not come to them. Or perhaps some evil—something we call tragedy—befell them. They blame someone else, or they blame God. The way their lives have turned out is all His fault because He did not give them what they hoped for or wanted, or He did not keep them from some trial. They sink the roots of their thoughts deeper into the bitter waters.

Often I have wondered how their lives might turn out if they chose to draw nourishment from other sources.

Many years ago, there was a job I wanted in the organization where I worked. When the opening came, I thought my experience and background suited me perfectly for it. I could imagine myself making great contributions in that position. I even prayed for God to help me get the job if it was His will.

The position went to someone else. At the time it was a bitter pill to swallow. I wondered if I was simply not good enough to be considered.

I lived to see how the position and that department changed, and how it would not have been the right place for me. Had I been hired for that job, I would have missed out on other opportunities that came later—special blessings the Lord had prepared. I would never have achieved some of the things it was my privilege to accomplish.

There are numerous references in the Bible to the Lord’s faithful followers as His vineyard, its people carefully nurtured (see, for example, Isaiah 5:7, Luke 13:6-9). There is a fuller treatment of the theme in the Book of Mormon—Jacob chapter five. It tells of a husbandman who plants some of his olive trees in unfavorable, rocky ground. Still, with His careful nurturing, they thrive.

I was born with a very visible birth defect that was a source of some taunting and bullying when I was a boy. I grew up without a dad because my father was killed in a car accident when I was 21 months old. My widowed, working mother’s income was for many years below the government’s poverty line, and as boy I sometimes wore hand-me-down clothes.  (To be honest, we were never “poor”; my mother faithfully tithed her income, and the Lord blessed us, literally opening the windows of heaven [Malachi 3:8-10] at times.)

But my challenges are small compared to those of many other people. My challenges are important only to me, and only because of growth they have brought. Through them, my Father taught me. I mention them only to make this point: Each of us could identify things in our lives that we might consider unfair–instances where we believe God or others slighted us. We can choose to drink deeply of the poisoned waters by brooding about those things.

Why not choose to look instead at the ways our God has nurtured us with richness of opportunity and experience? Sometimes that opportunity came disguised as a challenge.

Instead of lamenting the forbidding soil from which we sprang, why not choose to bear abundant fruit anyway, responding to the tender, nurturing hand of the Master of the vineyard?


What’s Right with America?

Yakov Smirnoff knows what it is to be a true American patriot.

The Russian comedian, who immigrated to the United States in 1977, has a deep love for his adopted country. He is known for his signature tag line: “What a country!” But through the years he has put his heart and his money where his mouth is.

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Yakov Smirnoff with fans.

Yakov is a talented artist. Many of his paintings pay homage to the U.S.A. Not many people know that in the wake of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Yakov spent a very large amount of his own time and money to produce and put into place a huge artistic memorial overlooking the site of the Twin Towers that had gone down. He did it anonymously because his name is associated with laughter, but he wanted to express solemnity and reverence at the tragedy, as well as his own hope and love for America.

You might think I’m giving a plug to his one-man show that we saw recently in Branson, Missouri. You’d be right. As they say in online product reviews, “Yes, I would recommend this to a friend.” Along with a generous dose of entertainment, his show offers some good advice about building strong relationships with the ones you love. (Would you believe laughter is a key?) Optimism about America comes through strongly.

A caveat here: there was sexual innuendo in some of his jokes that I felt was unnecessary. I attributed this to the fact that our backgrounds are very different and that many in the entertainment industry seem to expect this of comedians. After my initial reaction (“Is blue ‘humor’ really necessary for such a talented man?”), I tried to look deeper into the ideas he was expressing and their motivations.

He reminded me of some of the reasons I am grateful for the country where I was born and where I live.

Beautiful spacious skies over Yellowstone National Park.

Beautiful spacious skies over Yellowstone National Park.

Over the past few months, Mrs. S. and I have had some great opportunities to appreciate the words: “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain . . . .” We’ve seen them in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. During my lifetime, I have been blessed with the opportunity to visit six continents. But never have I seen anything to match the beauties of my home country.

Then there is freedom to choose our leaders. In our own home state and in the Midwest this fall, we saw hotly contested, sometimes vicious election campaigns with charges of indifference to voters, malfeasance, even criminality in office. The acrimony was painful. But in this country we have viable choices of candidates who may share our personal philosophies. I am reminded that there are literally billions of people on the earth who enjoy no such choices. I have lived in countries where the outcome of elections is always a foregone conclusion—or where there are no elections at all.

We live comparatively secure lives here. Mrs. S. and I spent 18 of the last 24 months living in Central America. For a hobbyist photographer like me, there were opportunities to see beautiful, fascinating things I loved to photograph. And yet I often dared not carry sophisticated camera equipment that would have allowed me to make photographs or video of the quality I desired. Carrying it in some areas could have put our lives or safety in jeopardy. We drove a car with tinted windows that prevented would-be robbers or kidnappers from seeing who was in the vehicle, or how we might be dressed. It was a blessing to come home to our country and be able to move about freely without worrying about malevolent, greedy eyes around us.

There are many people in the world who hate our country, who would like to destroy it. Why? Because in this country we have choices. We do not have to live the way they dictate. Worse, people who live under their rule are able to see or sense the differences, and they long to enjoy the freedoms Americans have. That makes this country a threat to the power of terrorists and other would-be dictators. The United States of America is seen as the hope of something better. That in itself is a blessing to the world.

It is something that an art professor-turned-comedian saw decades ago living with his parents in an overcrowded apartment in the Soviet Union. He saw hope in a new home across the ocean. Now he teaches in his theater show that we all see that which we seek. If we look for hope and optimism, we will find it. And it is much easier to find in this country than almost anywhere else in the world.

So my hat’s off to you, Mr. Smirnoff. You’re right about this place: “What a country!”