Mistakes, Sins, Failure, & Grace

 

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A talk I gave in Church in October 2016:

A new business was opening and one of the owner’s friends wanted to send flowers for the occasion.

They arrived at the new business site and the owner read the card; it said “Rest in Peace”. When the friend found out, she became angry and called the florist to complain. After she had told the florist of the obvious mistake and how angry she was, the florist said.

“Madam, I’m really sorry for the mistake, but rather than getting angry you should imagine this: somewhere there is a funeral taking place today, and they have flowers with a note saying, “Congratulations on your new location”. (http://www.jokebuddha.com/Mistake#ixzz3zjoTkFpO)

This brings to mind something that the comedian Red Skelton said and may actually hint at one of the more hidden refining benefits of marriage, “All men make mistakes, but married men find out about them sooner.”

On a more serious note, what do the scriptures say about mistakes? In Doctrine and Covenants 1:25,27 it reads: “And inasmuch as they have erred it might be made known.…And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent.” In a speech given at BYU, Elder Dallin H. Oaks pointed out the difference between erring or making a mistake and sinning. He said,

“Both can hurt us and both require attention, but the scriptures direct a different treatment. Chewing on a live electrical cord or diving headfirst into water of uncertain depth are mistakes that should be made known so they can be corrected. Violations of the commandments of God are sins that require chastening and repentance. In the treatment process we should not require repentance for mistakes, but we are commanded to preach the necessity of repentance for sins.” (BYU Speeches, Sins and Mistakes, Dallin H. Oaks April 1994)

Elder Oaks went on to define both mistakes and sins:

“Sins result from willful disobedience of laws we have received by explicit teaching or by the Spirit of Christ that teaches every man the general principles of right and wrong. For sins, the remedy is to chasten and encourage repentance.

 Mistakes result from ignorance of the laws of God or of the workings of the universe or of people he has created. For mistakes, the remedy is to correct the mistake, not to condemn the actor.”

 I believe that we need to have a proper understanding of the difference between sins and mistakes. Now, not all sins are weightier than any mistake. For example, it may be a mistake and not a sin to step out in front of a moving car or to post mean things about your boss on Facebook, but certainly these BIG mistakes can have irreversible or long-term consequences over a small sin.

We must always eschew sin and seek to quickly repent when we do willfully disobey a commandment we know that we should keep. Perhaps the most difficult part of this repentance, this change, is the humbling of ourselves to acknowledge our incorrectness and need for change/repentance. When it comes to mistakes, though, Elder Oaks taught:

“We should seek to avoid mistakes, since some mistakes have very painful consequences. But we do not seek to avoid mistakes at all costs. Mistakes are inevitable in the process of growth in mortality. To avoid all possibility of error is to avoid all possibility of growth.”

 Avoiding mistakes at all costs can lead to analysis paralysis or all the negative anxiety that we have heard of that can accompany a debilitating obsession with perfection. Too often the enemy of doing something good is the desire to wait further until the good is perfect. However, as the the Savior himself taught with the parable of the talents, at some point, not doing something good for fear that our good isn’t good enough or isn’t perfect, makes us unprofitable servants.

In Matthew 25:4-30, the Savior tells the parable of the talents. The Lord gives 5 talents to one servant, 2 talents to another, and one talent to a third. The first two servants take their talents and when the Lord returns, they return double what the Lord gave them. When the Lord asks the third servant, he says, “…I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo here that is thine.” When it comes to doing good things, are we afraid? Are we too afraid of making mistakes? Are we afraid that we might fail?

In July 2011, Brad Wilcox gave what may be the best talk on Grace and explaining the atonement and how grace works that I have ever heard or read. In it, Brother Wilcox tells of a young BYU student who approaches him and says that she doesn’t understand grace. The conversation went like this:

“She said, “I just don’t get grace.”

I responded, “What is it that you don’t understand?”

She said, “I know I need to do my best and then Jesus does the rest, but I can’t even do my best.”

She then went on to tell me all the things she should be doing because she’s a Mormon that she wasn’t doing.

She continued, “I know that I have to do my part and then Jesus makes up the difference and fills the gap that stands between my part and perfection. But who fills the gap that stands between where I am now and my part?”

She then went on to tell me all the things that she shouldn’t be doing because she’s a Mormon, but she was doing them anyway.

Finally I said, “Jesus doesn’t make up the difference. Jesus makes all the difference. Grace is not about filling gaps. It is about filling us.”

Seeing that she was still confused, I took a piece of paper and drew two dots—one at the top representing God and one at the bottom representing us. I then said, “Go ahead.

Draw the line. How much is our part? How much is Christ’s part?”

She went right to the center of the page and began to draw a line. Then, considering what we had been speaking about, she went to the bottom of the page and drew a line just above the bottom dot.

I said, “Wrong.”

She said, “I knew it was higher. I should have just drawn it, because I knew it.”

I said, “No. The truth is, there is no line. Jesus filled the whole space. He paid our debt in full. He didn’t pay it all except for a few coins. He paid it all. It is finished.”

She said, “Right! Like I don’t have to do anything?”

“Oh no,” I said, “you have plenty to do, but it is not to fill that gap. We will all be resurrected. We will all go back to God’s presence. What is left to be determined by our obedience is what kind of body we plan on being resurrected with and how comfortable we plan to be in God’s presence and how long we plan to stay there.”

 Brother Wilcox then gives an analogy of grace and practicing the piano.

Christ’s arrangement with us is similar to a mom providing music lessons for her child. Mom pays the piano teacher…. Because Mom pays the debt in full, she can turn to her child and ask for something. What is it? Practice! Does the child’s practice pay the piano teacher? No. Does the child’s practice repay Mom for paying the piano teacher? No.

Practicing is how the child shows appreciation for Mom’s incredible gift. It is how he takes advantage of the amazing opportunity Mom is giving him to live his life at a higher level. Mom’s joy is found not in getting repaid but in seeing her gift used—seeing her child improve. And so she continues to call for practice, practice, practice.

 Elder Dallin H. Oaks has said, referring to President Spencer W. Kimball’s explanation, “The repenting sinner must suffer for his sins, but this suffering has a different purpose than punishment or payment. Its purpose is change” (The Lord’s Way [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991], 223; emphasis in original). Let’s put that in terms of our analogy: The child must practice the piano, but this practice has a different purpose than punishment or payment. Its purpose is change.”

 Brother Wilcox goes on to remark that we are here on earth and in families trying to “learn Heaven,” we are practicing and preparing for it. It would be completely unrealistic for either me to expect my daughter or my daughter to expect herself to be able to sit down and play a new piano piece without mess ups. And if she did mess up, it would be completely ridiculous for her to throw up our hands and declare, “I can’t do this piano thing. I’ve failed. I’m just not cut out for it.” While she may have certainly felt that way, it wouldn’t be true. So then, what would failure in this case be? Failure would be giving up. Throwing in the towel. The timeframe for which we consider failure is much too short. We may wish to go a day without yelling at our kids, and we fail to do this. But have we failed in the long run? Will we let our short term failures, define our long term? Do we believe in defeat or only temporary setbacks?

In high school I went through a series of trials and depression that was extremely difficult for me, my parents got me a talk on tape that spoke on persistence and diligence and keeping on trying. The speaker read 2 Peter 1:4-8,10:

  • Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
  • And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; 6 And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; 7 And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.

8 For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ….

10 Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall:”

And that last “fall” he said, imagine that as “fail.” Basically, be diligent or keep trying and you shall never fail. And then the kicker: “I’m not judged by the number of times that I fail, but by the number of times that I succeed, and the number of times that I succeed is in direct proportion to the number of times that I fail, but keep trying.” We only really fail if we’ve given up and then only for as long as we continue to give up. We only fail to become pianists by giving up on our daily practice regimen. We only fail to become Celestial by giving up on our daily “learning Heaven” regimen of Gospel living.

Brother Wilcox puts this beautifully and so I will quote from his words:

“But Brother Wilcox, don’t you realize how hard it is to practice? I’m just not very good at the piano. I hit a lot of wrong notes. It takes me forever to get it right.” Now wait. Isn’t that all part of the learning process? When a young pianist hits a wrong note, we don’t say he is not worthy to keep practicing. We don’t expect him to be flawless. We just expect him to keep trying. Perfection may be his ultimate goal, but for now we can be content with progress in the right direction. Why is this perspective so easy to see in the context of learning piano but so hard to see in the context of learning heaven?

 Too many are giving up on the Church because they are tired of constantly feeling like they are falling short. They have tried in the past, but they always feel like they are just not good enough. They don’t understand grace.

 There are young women who know they are daughters of a Heavenly Father who loves them, and they love Him. Then they graduate from high school, and the values they memorized are put to the test. They slip up. They let things go too far, and suddenly they think it is all over. These young women don’t understand grace.

 There are young men who grow up their whole lives singing, “I hope they call me on a mission,” and then they do actually grow a foot or two and flake out completely. They get their Eagles, graduate from high school, and go away to college. Then suddenly these young men find out how easy it is to not be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, or reverent. They mess up. They say, “I’ll never do it again,” and then they do it. They say, “I’ll never do it again,” and then they do it. They say, “This is stupid. I will never do it again.” And then they do it.

The guilt is almost unbearable. They don’t dare talk to a bishop. Instead, they hide. They say, “I can’t do this Mormon thing. I’ve tried, and the expectations are just way too high.” So they quit. These young men don’t understand grace.

I know returned missionaries who come home and slip back into bad habits they thought were over. They break promises made before God, angels, and witnesses, and they are convinced there is no hope for them now. They say, “Well, I’ve blown it. There is no use in even trying any more.” Seriously? These young people have spent entire missions teaching people about Jesus Christ and His Atonement, and now they think there is no hope for them? These returned missionaries don’t understand grace.

 I know young married couples who find out after the sealing ceremony is over that marriage requires adjustments. The pressures of life mount, and stress starts taking its toll financially, spiritually, and even sexually. Mistakes are made. Walls go up. And pretty soon these husbands and wives are talking with divorce lawyers rather than talking with each other. These couples don’t understand grace.

 In all of these cases there should never be just two options: perfection or giving up. When learning the piano, are the only options performing at Carnegie Hall or quitting? No.

Growth and development take time. Learning takes time. When we understand grace, we understand that God is long-suffering, that change is a process, and that repentance is a pattern in our lives. When we understand grace, we understand that the blessings of Christ’s Atonement are continuous and His strength is perfect in our weakness (see 2 Corinthians 12:9). When we understand grace, we can, as it says in the Doctrine and Covenants, “continue in patience until [we] are perfected” (D&C 67:13).

 My wife and I are trying to teach my daughter the piano. We’ve employed a piano teacher and we have implemented the conditions of practice and we’ve resorted to all sorts of various kinds of external motivations to ensure that that practicing occurs. But I will tell you one challenge that my daughter is having to overcome, and that is her own unrealistic expectations regarding her abilities to play the piano perfectly or at least very well without first putting in the time to practice. This has made me realize that when our expectations our misaligned with our abilities, we cause ourselves grief. I feel that this is important enough to repeat: when our expectations our misaligned with our abilities, we cause ourselves grief. I have heard this concept referred to as our stories. When the stories we tell ourselves are not true stories that reflect how things actually are, we cause ourselves grief. There are two ways to remedy this situation to relieve our grief: to adjust our expectations or change the stories we tell ourselves in order to match our abilities—or to change our abilities and the way things are.

Sometimes it is our stories/expectations that are off, other times we really just need to improve our abilities and change the way things are. Sometimes it may be a mix of both that is necessary.

When Heavenly Father thought up his Plan of Happiness, as a part of that, from the very beginning He knew this would require a Savior. He knew that we would make mistakes AND He knew that we would sin. And even now, we’re all going to make more mistakes in the future and we are going to sin in the future. So He provided a way for us to get over those and He defined and taught a process, repentance, that could and will change us gradually over time to become like Him. And then He gave us the power to act, the power to choose. And while He does want us to become like Him and He wants our ultimate, eventual perfection, He does not want us worrying about it to the point that the fear of imperfection paralyzes us (for which of you by taking thought can add one cubit to his statute?) (Matt. 6:27). In this scripture, the Lord tells his disciples to go out into the mission field and not worry about purse or scrip and that the Lord will provide. In our efforts for implementing positive change in our own lives we should likewise be quick to choose to act, to move forward, quick to do.

Slight Edge

I recently read a book called The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson. The gist of the book was basically the concept that is taught in Alma 37:6: “By small and simple things, great things are brought to pass.” The idea being that small, simple easy-to-do things compounded over time leads to greatness and happiness and success. If this is the case, then why don’t so many people do these small, simple, easy-to-do things? Because if something is simple and easy-to-do, it’s also easy- not-to-do. For example, it’s easy to read at least a scripture a day, it’s also easy not to do this.

But over a period of years, the practice of daily scripture reading can make a world of difference in one’s spiritual development and knowledge of the scriptures. If we’ve chosen to do the easy- to-do, but easy-not-to-do things and read our scriptures daily then we’ll have reaped the compounded benefits of this daily practice. But if we haven’t then we’ll have missed out on the compounded, consistent benefits. The problem is that initially the easy-to-do, simple, small things may start out as slightly uncomfortable or slightly inconvenient, while the easy-not-to-do things require no such effort. However, following the easy-not-to-do path over time leads to regret and greater discomfort, while the easy-to-do, but slightly uncomfortable efforts over time lead to greater comfort freedom, happiness, and success. One last example, it’s easy not to eat healthy and to not exercise and initially is probably more comfortable, but compounded over time this will lead to great discomfort in obesity and related health problems. However, if one starts with an easy effort to do just one small thing to exercise or increase movement and healthy eating and then compounds this daily effort over time, then that person will eventually be healthy, trim, and more comfortable. Each of us faces each day with choices, one choice compounded over time leads to unhappiness, the other to happiness. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

If up ‘til now we’ve been traveling the road most traveled by, each day we get to choose anew. That’s what’s great about the atonement and grace. We can repent. We can change, we can acknowledge mistakes and start again. Repent and we’re not judged by the number of times that we fail, but by the number of times that we succeed, and the number of times that we succeed is in direct proportion to the number of times that we fail, but keep trying! And as we’re successful in keeping trying, in practicing and learning Heaven, and doing the simple, easy-to-do efforts that may be slightly inconvenient or uncomfortable but that improve our lives, over time we’ll find that these small, simple things have brought great positive changes to our lives. We only truly fail when we’ve stopped trying or we’ve put off trying until it’s too late. And if you’re human and breathing, you can change and it’s not too late.

Are you feeling like you’re failing? Are you feeling like you’ve just made too many mistakes? Do you have a sin that you keep going back to again and again? Do you feel bad when you keep praying and asking forgiveness for the same thing? Have walls gone up in your marriage? In the words of Winston Churchill, “never give in, never give in, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” Don’t give up! Do you understand grace? Are two roads diverging in a yellow wood in your life? Take the one less traveled by! It will make all the difference!

We’ve talked about mistakes, about sin, about failure, and about grace. But what is success? Again I quote from Brad Wilcox’s talk:

In the past I had a picture in my mind of what the final judgment would be like, and it went something like this: Jesus standing there with a clipboard and Brad standing on the other side of the room nervously looking at Jesus.

 Jesus checks His clipboard and says, “Oh, shoot, Brad. You missed it by two points.”

 Brad begs Jesus, “Please, check the essay question one more time! There have to be two points you can squeeze out of that essay.” That’s how I always saw it.

 But the older I get, and the more I understand this wonderful plan of redemption, the more I realize that in the final judgment it will not be the unrepentant sinner begging Jesus, “Let me stay.” No, he will probably be saying, “Get me out of here!” Knowing Christ’s character, I believe that if anyone is going to be begging on that occasion, it would probably be Jesus begging the unrepentant sinner, “Please, choose to stay. Please, use my Atonement—not just to be cleansed but to be changed so that you want to stay.”

 The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can go home but that—miraculously—we can feel at home there.

 And that is success. To have used grace and practiced and learned Heaven by doing the easy-to- do, but also easy-not-to-do, daily gospel efforts compounded over time until we’ve changed and we feel at home in our home in Heaven. And then when our time to go does come, it will not matter if the funeral home makes a mistake and sends us flowers that read, “Congratulations on your new location!”

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

How I made journaling a habit and use it to improve my life

#HashtagJournaling

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September 19, 2015. This is the day that I started journaling on my phone. I’d kept a journal before. In the past I had done so in an actual, physical journal. I’d had some cool ones. One had a Japanese bonsai tree theme– an orange, open bound style book. I did OK with this before I was married and in college. But ultimately my hand would either start hurting from writing so much, or I would get frustrated that it would take so long to get my thoughts down on paper. So I switched to typing my journal. This worked OK as well. I used My Publisher for a while and even printed out and bound a year of my journal. The problem here was that My Publisher’s processor for typing couldn’t keep up with me.That’s not a compliment to me, that’s more of a diss against My Publisher. If I didn’t use My Publisher and tried to just type on a Word document, then I’d need to keep my journal documents organized in some location–which never happened.  This method of journaling also had the difficulty in that I felt like I needed to sit down at a computer to write in my journal and I didn’t always have a computer with me when it was convenient to journal. Hence, I didn’t journal as often as I would have liked.

Sometime in September of 2015 I came across a friend from church who was using a simple, free note taking app for keeping a journal. I was intrigued and thought that I would try it out. I looked on the app store for the best journaling apps and ended up deciding on a different app. The app I chose cost a couple bucks, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s been money well spent.

I chose Day One. Day One allows you to easily type in an entry. You can add a photo if you want. You can do voice entries. It documents the date and time of the entry and even includes the weather. One thing I’ve really enjoyed is the use of hashtags in my journaling.

January 28, 2016, I finished reading Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage (great book, I highly recommend it. Take Home Message: Happiness is less about peoples’ circumstances and more what they think about their circumstances). Since then, I’ve used the hashtag #3GoodThings and have sought to write down 3 Good Things that happened that day. Perhaps its something I’m grateful for or maybe it’s just something awesome that happened that day.

Then I read an article from Henry B. Eyring and he mentioned that he had started trying to notice the hand of God in his life. So, I’ve also sought to notice the hand of God in my life and document it in my journal with #GodsHand.

But perhaps my favorite hashtag has been #FindTheFunny. I listened to David Nihil’s book, “Do you talk funny?” And decided that I needed to look for and document the funny that happens in my life. I wanted to do this so that I would remember these times, but also because I wanted to share them when I speak in public or just to share funny stories with my friends.

Here’s one I’ll share here:

One night after a Christmas concert at my son’s school, my son Wyatt (8 years old) was explaining who in his class spoke other languages, “So-and-so speaks Russian and so does someone or other. Adekami and I are the only ones who can speak Spanish besides counting (that was news to me 🙂 ).” And then as though he didn’t want me to think that he’d been outdone, he remarked, “And Gio and I are the only ones in the class that can speak Minion.” #FindTheFunny

I love it! It’s pretty cool to be able to just search through all my journal entries by hashtag and read all the funny occurrences that have happened.

Since I’ve started I’ve made 414 entries on 332 different days! I’m keeping a journal again.

Best of luck in your #HashtagJournaling!

 

 

Ministering: The Pine and The Birch Tree

I had the opportunity to speak in church today. Unfortunately it was one of those times when the previous speakers take all of the time and leave little to none for the last speaker. I did my best to give a Reader’s Digest version, but I felt like I needed to get my unshared thoughts out there in some way. So, enjoy….

It’s a blessing to be here with you today. My wife and I were members of this ward for two years when we first moved out to Cleveland. It was here that I had the opportunity to have the second best calling in the church: Ward Mission Leader. Do you know what the First Best Calling in the church is? Full-Time Missionary. What a wonderful opportunity to have the blessing to take two “Gap Years” and spend it fully devoted to serving others. To ministering and to doing what Christ would do if He were in your shoes. Can I tell you a quick story about when I received my mission call? I was attending BYU at the time. My mission call had come to my apartment in Provo, but the plan was to open it with my family after we’d all attended the BYU football game that night. After the game, I ran back to my apartment at Deseret Towers to grab my mission call. The plan was to meet on 900 East at an LDS church kitty-corner from Deseret Towers. I waited for a while on the corner of 900 East as post-BYU game traffic backed up and moved slowly. I was pumped and excited to open my call. I remembered that my parents had just traded in their blue suburban for a new gold minivan. I remember mentally patting myself on the back for remembering that as I tried to spot their car. Then I saw it. They were heading south down 900 East. Traffic was slow and they were right in front of me just on the other side of the center line. So I ran toward the center lane, grabbed the drivers side sliding door of the van, slid it open, jumped in before traffic started to move, and….I didn’t recognize a soul in the car. I’d had a big ol’ smile on my face…. The father yelled super angrily, “Get out!” The mom had an expression of shock, which my expression immediately began morphing in to — you know the emoji with the frown and the blue forehead– I think I apologized and from there I don’t remember closing the door or walking back across the street. I was traumatized. It was the worst. Definitely my most embarrassing moment.

When I first told my wife this experience (probably 3 years later) she thought it was hilarious. I still felt awful remembering it. Now 16 years later, time has healed that wound enough that I can laugh at my over-confident impulsive self. But right after that experience happened, I just needed someone whom I trusted, someone with whom I felt safe and to whom I could vent all that pent-up shame and emotion.

And that is what I want to talk about today. Ministering. Being there for each other. Reaching out, going the extra mile, making an effort to lift and love like the Savior would.

forest, nature, trees

I’ve got another story. Suzanne Simard grew up in the forests of British Columbia. She went in to forestry and made an incredible discovery. Scientists had discovered that in the lab, one pine seedling root could transmit carbon to another pine seedling root. Suzanne thought, “This was in the lab, could this happen in real forests?” She thought so. She grew a bunch of replicates of birch, fir, and cedar.  Then she bought some plastic bags and duct tape and shade cloth, a timer, a paper suit a respirator and then she borrowed some high-tech stuff from her university: a Geiger counter, a scintillation counter, a mass spectrometer, microscopes. And then she got some really dangerous stuff: syringes full of radioactive carbon-14 carbon dioxide gas and some high pressure bottles of the stable isotope carbon-13 carbon dioxide gas. But she forgot the bear spray. So she gets out to the forest and the first day she’s chased off by a grizzly and her cub. Apparently that’s normal in forest research in Canada. She comes back the next day, and mama grizzly and her cub were gone. She put on her white paper suit, put on her respirator, and then she put the plastic bags over the trees. She injected one radioactive carbon dioxide gas into the bag of birch and a different stable carbon dioxide gas into the bag of pine. She wanted to see if there was two-way communication going on between these species. After a visit by the grizzly which chased her back to the truck for an hour or so, she returned to the first bag with the birch. She pulled the bag off and ran the Geiger counter over its leaves. Kkhh! Perfect. The birch had taken up the radioactive gas. Then the moment of truth. She walked over to the fir tree. She pulled off its bag. She ran the Geiger counter up its needles, and she heard the most beautiful sound.Kkhh! It was the sound of birch talking to fir, and birch was saying, “Hey, can I help you?” And fir was saying, “Yeah, can you send me some of your carbon? Because somebody threw a shade cloth over me.”  The evidence was clear. The C-13 and C-14 was showing that paper birch and Douglas fir were in a lively two-way conversation. It turns out at that time of the year, in the summer, that birch was sending more carbon to fir than fir was sending back to birch, especially when the fir was shaded. And then in later experiments, she found the opposite, that fir was sending more carbon to birch than birch was sending to fir, and this was because the fir was still growing while the birch was leafless. So it turns out the two species were interdependent, like yin and yang. Suzanne discovered that fungal networks connect trees within the forest in a cooperative network almost like an underground internet.  Suzanne performed an experiment where they learned that large Mother trees colonize their kin (their seedlings) with bigger fungal networks. They send them more carbon below ground. They even reduce their own root competition to make elbow room for their kids. When mother trees are injured or dying, they also send messages of wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings. Suzanne showed that trees talk.[1]  Forests need the community, the larger hub/mother trees. The birch and pine give and take, when the birch are leafless, the pine gives carbon to the birch, and when the birch is flush with leaves the birch gives carbon to the shaded pine. No man is an island, and apparently no tree is either.

We read in Genesis 2:18 “And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” We are social beings. We need each other. It’s no mystery that the temple and Celestial Kingdom is about exalting and binding families together. One of the only scriptures found in all four of the standard works, “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

“We need our hearts to turn towards each other, we need social connection. We need to feel understood. “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood”–Ralph G. Nichols

Shawn Achor is a Harvard researcher who studies happiness and is the author of the book The Happiness Advantage, which I read last year. One of the things that I enjoyed about this book is that it corroborates through an intellectual mainstream way what I already knew — that living the principles of the Gospel brings happiness. One of these principles that Dr. Achor stressed is the importance of social connections. Too often when things get tough in our lives and we feel sorrow or overwhelmed we become reclusive, we retract and become solitary. We stray from our friends and loved ones. Perhaps because of the pain we feel we draw in, grabbing our shoulders and huddle to make ourselves small. This is the opposite of what we should do. When we feel this way, we need to look to our social connections for support and ministering. Dr. Achor found “in a study of 1,648 students at Harvard, he found that social support was the greatest predictor of happiness during periods of high stress. In fact, the correlation between happiness and the academic measure they used to assess students’ positive engagement with their social networks was a whopping .71—for comparison, the correlation between smoking and cancer is .37.” This study focused on how much social support the students received. In a follow-on study, he found that even more important to sustained happiness and engagement was the amount of social support the students provided.[2]

That study that showed that sustained happiness and engagement was greater among students that provided social support reminds me of this quote from President Monson: “God bless all who endeavor to be their brother’s keeper, who give to ameliorate suffering, who strive with all that is good within them to make a better world. Have you noticed that such individuals have a brighter smile? Their footsteps are more certain. They have an aura about them of contentment and satisfaction … for one cannot participate in helping others without experiencing a rich blessing himself.[3]

With regard to social support networks, how inspired that we’re asked to set apart a day every week and gather together.  Mosiah 18:25 reads, “And there was one day in every week that was set apart that they should gather themselves together to teach the people, and to worship the Lord their God, and also, as often as it was in their power, to assemble themselves together.” And in Moroni 6:5, “And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls.” We are blessed by our association together- in that we can both be ministered to and that we can minister to others.
The Savior taught, “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine, and go into the wilderness after that which is lost, until he find it?” (JST, Luke 15:4; italics added.)” Is it a wonder that in this parable, that going astray is synonymous with going it alone? The Savior is the ultimate example of ministering to the one, ministering to the lost sheep that has become separated from its social and spiritual support network. Jesus’ life was all about reaching out to the socially outcast. Instead of journeying around Samaria, as most Jews would to avoid contact with these “intermixed or unclean jews”, Jesus traveled through Samaria. He sought out the pools of Bethsaida where the sick and afflicted would gather, waiting for the waters to be troubled as tradition had it that the first into the water following the “angel” troubling the waters would be healed. Part of me thinks that there were certainly people who avoided this pool because of the type of people it attracted–did people really want to be surrounded by sick people? He sat and ate with sinners and publicans (the hated tax collectors who “worked for the enemy”). Yes, Jesus preached in the synagogues, but he’s remembered for what he did outside of the synagogues. He ministered out amongst the people, on the streets, on hillsides, and in their homes. And we are asked to be like Him. We are asked to reach out to and minister to our brother, to our neighbor.

To minister as the Savior ministered we must seek to emulate the Savior and be a true disciple. The Lord asks us in the Doctrine and Covenants to “Lift up the hands that hang down and strengthen the feeble knees.” (D&C 81:5)  Pres. Monson has encouraged us, “There are lives to brighten. There are hearts to touch. There are souls to save. Ours is the sacred privilege to brighten, to touch, and to save those precious souls entrusted to our care. We should do so faithfully and with hearts filled with gladness.”

Ministering is also being willing to do or knowing what needs to be done without having to be asked to do it. It’s offering or just doing the service instead of offering to help but requiring the person to ask for it. When a person needs ministering to, they are often lost. They are often withdrawn, huddled in an effort to protect themselves from what they are going through. We need to realize that it can be too much to ask to require that the person to whom we would minister be required to tell us how to help them or to ask us for help.

Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught, “Thus another special lesson learned: If you come upon a person who is drowning, would you ask if they need help—or would it be better to just jump in and save them from the deepening waters? The offer, while well meaning and often given, “Let me know if I can help” is really no help at all.[4]

When ministering, remember that LDS also can stand for Let’s Do Something. Do something good for those to whom you would minister. If you know them well enough, you may be able to guess what they need most. Sometimes we may just need to “mourn with those who mourn.” We may need to just “hold space” for someone to whom we would minister. Heather Plett describes how we can do this:

“It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control. To truly support people in their own growth, transformation, grief, etc., we can’t do it by taking their power away (ie. trying to fix their problems), shaming them (ie. implying that they should know more than they do), or overwhelming them (ie. giving them more information than they’re ready for). We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it’s needed, and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes.[5]

This is mourning with those that mourn and this seems more like a function of using our ears and our heart. David Augsburger said, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”

My senior year of high school I went through an exceptionally trying time. I had a bout of anxiety that led to a loss of confidence, that led to depression, that led to obsessive compulsive behavior, that led to more anxiety and more depression. It was a terrible downward spiral. I felt like my only escape was when I slept and when I’d wake up I felt like my own mind was against me. I could almost feel the dark gloom cloud over me in the morning. I did my best to put on a mask during the day while at school, but inside I was dying inside. As soon as I’d get home I’d go down and lock myself up in my room. I tried all sorts of church answer solutions — praying, reading scriptures more. But I just shed tears after tears. As I was going through this I remember listening to this song by Michael McLean and the lyrics spoke exactly how I felt. It’s called Safe Harbors:

There are refugees among us
That are not from foreign shores;
And the battles they are waging
Are from very private wars.
And there are no correspondents
Documenting all their grief,
But these refugees among us all
Are yearning for relief.

There are refugees among us.
They don’t carry flags or signs.
They are standing right beside us
In the market check out lines;
And the war they’ve been fighting
It will not be televised,
But the story of their need for love
Is written in their eyes.

This is a call to arms,
To reach out and to hold
The evacuees from the dark.
This is a call to arms,
To lead anguished souls
To safe harbors of the heart.

Can you see through their disguises?
Can you hear what words won’t tell?
Some are losing faith in Heaven
‘Cause their life’s a living Hell.
Is there anyone to help those
Who have no where else to flee?
For the only arms protecting them
belong to you and me.

This is a call to arms,
To reach out and to hold
The evacuees from the dark.
This is a call to arms,
To lead anguished souls
To safe harbors of the heart.
Can you feel the pleas of the refugees

For safe harbors of the heart?

For me, it was my mom who “held space” for me through my trial and helped me until I found my way to safe harbor. For the months that I waded through this crucible she would come down in to my room to pray with me or to hug me or to give me words of encouragement, or hope or faith. When I had outlasted the patience of my father, my mom was still there with me. Beyond any other experience in my life, this is where I felt ministered to with love. Do you have an experience when someone has ministered to you and your family? How did you feel? What would you do for that person? Imagine now what Christ has done for you by taking on your sins and sicknesses and pains. What would you do for Him? Would you pay it forward by ministering to His children–those refugees foreign or domestic that are around you?

When we minister to the one, our souls grow in substance. D. Todd Cristofferson taught, “Not only do we ‘find’ ourselves in terms of acknowledging divine guidance in our lives, but the more we serve our fellowmen in appropriate ways, the more substance there is to our souls. … We become more substantive as we serve others–indeed, it is easier to ‘find’ ourselves because there is so much more of us to find![6]

So what do we do to be better ministers and to strengthen our social connections when we do gather ourselves together? Gather oft. Develop a reservoir of spiritual strength from which you can minister from a position of love. Studying the word of God, especially the Book of Mormon – I testify that reading the Book of Mormon will increase our spiritual reservoirs. Connect with people. Realize that it may take time to develop enough trust and a feeling of safety with people in order to be authentic and real. Ultimately connect with “real intent”. Is the answer to “How are you doing?” Really always, “Good or fine.” When we ask “How are you doing?” Are we just being pleasant or do we really care to know? Can we be real enough with each other to be able to be vulnerable so that we can have opportunities to give each other “the carbon” that our roots need? I believe that the Spirit will guide us in our efforts to strengthen our social and spiritual connections in our wards. Then just do something. If you’re unclear on what the Spirit wants you to do, just do something good–the scriptures tell us this is from God (Moroni 7). Do that good thing. Make a phone call. Make a visit. Give service. Give a hug. Give a compliment. Just listen. Whether it is for your own family or for families for whom you have a priesthood responsibility to minister —start with a small, easy to do action. What’s the best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Don’t bite off more than you can chew–or in scripture speak, “it is not needful that a man run faster than he is able.” It’s perfectly ok to start with a walk or at a jog. Just take action. We’ve all heard about the importance of ministering before, what I’ve shared today isn’t new information. I like how author Derek Sivers puts it, “If more info were the answer, we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.” We have the knowledge, now let’s just do it!

Brothers and Sisters, in the words of author Brene Brown “Connection is why we are here,” if you are feeling like a lost sheep and things look or feel bleak and you can’t see the forest for the trees, or if you’re feeling like the pine, feeling like God or life has put a shade cloth over you, reach out horizontally to your fellow birch, reach out horizontally to the ninety and nine. Ask for help or at least accept help. And if you are feeling like you are a birch and your leaves are full and the sun is shining in your life, reach out horizontally and find those pines that are under a shade cloth and say, “Hey, can I help you? Here take some of my carbon.”

I say this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

[1] Suzanne Simard. “How trees talk to each other.” July 2016 TED Talk. Accessed 11-Feb-2017. https://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other/transcript?language=en

[2] Shawn Achor. “Positive Intelligence.” Harvard Business Review 2012 Jan-Feb. Accessed 11-Feb-2017. https://hbr.org/2012/01/positive-intelligence

[3] Thomas S. Monson. “Our Brothers’ Keepers.” Ensign 1998 June. Accessed 11-Feb-2017. https://www.lds.org/ensign/1998/06/our-brothers-keepers?lang=eng

[4] Ronald A. Rasband. “Special Lessons.” Ensign 2012 May. Accessed 11-Feb-2017. https://www.lds.org/ensign/2012/05/special-lessons?lang=eng

[5] Heather Plett, quoted in talk by Tom Tolman. Accessed 11-Feb-2017 on Leading LDS Blog. https://leadinglds.org/being-a-leader-in-a-faith-crisis-guest-post-interview-with-tom-tolman/

[6] D. Todd Cristofferson. “Saving Your Life.” CES Devotional Broadcast for Young Adults. Sep. 14, 2014 at Brigham Young University.

Greatness: Nature vs. Nurture vs. Choice

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I’m a firm believer that all human beings have potential to do great things. The challenge in saying something like this is what does “great” mean? I consider “greatness” to mean developing or exhibiting a quality, making a decision, or doing something that is worthy of admiration. At the risk of getting in to semantics, “great things” clearly can be situational. If you were abused as a child and as a parent have broken that cycle of abuse, you’ve done a great thing. If you lifted one who was downtrodden or stood up in the face of rebuke or peer pressure for what you knew was right, then you have done a great thing. And if you have been indispensable in building something great or that didn’t exist before, or otherwise achieved something that no one or few before ever have, then you have done a great thing.

I believe it was Tolstoy who saw a baby, peasant boy on a train in the arms of his poorly dressed parents, and he lamented that: “Oh, even if this boy were or could be the next Mozart, it will never happen because the environment for such to occur will not exist in this boy’s life.” (Or something like this…)

There is much that I enjoy and that is inspirational and rings true to me that I read in self development and self improvement literature. However I sometimes mentally grapple with two opposing ideas. The first is what I have shared above — the thought that our environment can have such a large influence on who we become. Let’s call this the argument for Nurture. The idea that destiny or our ultimate potential for achievement is largely dictated by the presence or lack of nurtured opportunities.

Another idea would be that destiny or achievement is essentially determined by our genes. The idea that born talent or natural abilities and gifts determine destiny or achievement or greatness. I think that many people acknowledge that genes play a role, some people have the body or build for athletics. Let’s call this argument Nature — the idea that one’s genes or through no work except for the born-with-it lottery does one have access to greatness or high achievement.

The last argument is essentially the “great by choice” argument. The idea that one’s destiny or ultimate achievement is more a matter of choice than anything else. Let’s call this the argument of Choice.

Is greatness or becoming great a matter of Nature, Nurture, or Choice?

Here is what I think: Nature makes greatness easier, but it in no way is exclusionary toward anyone. Nurture can be highly influenced by Choice. One’s environment and opportunities are influenced by choices. So I tend to lean towards the argument that greatness is more a matter of Choice. The difficulty with believing that greatness is merely a matter of choice is that then there are a whole bunch of people out there that would either completely disagree that they have that choice in the first place or else they simply choose poorly all the time. What keeps people from making the choice to be great?

We can only choose to be great when we have the freedom to make that choice.

Two things keep us from this choice: consequences of previous choices and a lack of freedom. Choices and consequences are inseparably connected. If you pick up a stick with one end labeled A and the other end of the stick labeled B. Picking up the stick will get you both ends of the stick. Consequence B follows picking up end A. They are connected. Shoplifting or drunk driving inherently brings with it the potential consequences of hefty fines, a criminal record, and possibly some jail time. If you’ve just been busted for committing a crime, your freedom to choose is diminished until after you’ve paid for the consequences of your previous actions.

The same thing applies when trying to choose greatness. As long as the sum of your previous actions has not placed a restrictive burden on your ability to choose and change to become great, you can indeed choose to be so.

Another impediment toward being able to choose greatness would be actual political or economic freedom. This is a case in which Nurture can trump Choice. If politically or economically your ability to choose is so drastically reduced, it would be unfair to expect political, economic, or perhaps even financial “greatness” from oneself. Nevertheless, the freedom to choose how to react to any situation will always be available to us and in this freedom a greatness in our response can be had — an excellent example of this is Victor Frankl. He learned and realized as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp that even with all their other freedoms taken away, each person was still at liberty to choose their attitude and how they reacted to the situation in which they were placed. Choosing to react in a selfless manner in extreme circumstances has often yielded glimpses of greatness.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s own way. -Victor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”

Take for example a mouse placed in a cage with an impossibly high glass wall between it and a cage full of other mice or wheels and cheese, etc. All the motivation in the world isn’t going to get that mouse over the wall. Expecting the mouse to be able to overcome such a barrier on its own is unrealistic. Trying and trying and trying all the while continuing to fall and fail isn’t going to get the mouse over the wall. It literally has no choice of its own that would include getting over the wall. At such a point, the path to greatness is not through changing our circumstances, it is rather, as Frankl says, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Changing ourselves or choosing greatness is often difficult because of the fear of uncertainty.

“Good is the enemy of great.” — James C. Collins.

If life is good, the uncertainty that is necessary to embrace to achieve greatness can be extra difficult to pass through since there is a lack of pain of the “not-good” to push us or motivate us to change and wade through that uncertainty.

Lastly, and here’s a paradox I learned from reading Jeff Olson’s The Slight Edge, choosing greatness is easy to do. It’s easy, but may be slightly uncomfortable initially (remember that uncertainty!). The problem is that not-choosing greatness is also easy to do. Not-choosing greatness, though, requires no immediate discomfort. The kicker is that over time after many, many daily choices or rituals have been made or established the harvest of those compounded actions over time will either be greatness with more freedom and less discomfort, or it will be mediocrity and regret with discomfort. Take healthy eating and exercise as an example here. If I asked, “Could you exercise for 30 minutes today?” The answer would probably be, yes, that’s not an impossibly hard task. “Is it easier not to exercise for 30 minutes today?” Also, a yes. But over time, a daily ritual of exercise will create significant changes in a person’s health and happiness both mentally and physically and can put that person on a path to “greatness”. On the other hand, choosing the easier path, over time the person’s health and happiness may diminish both mentally and physically as weight gain and its associated comorbidities begin to take their toll.

So, what’s the bottom line? What’s the take-home message? I believe we all have potential to cultivate greatness — essentially qualities and decisions worthy of admiration — and that we do so primarily by choosing to perform simple, easy-to-do actions consistently over time when not performing those actions would be easier. I believe we choose greatness when our decisions are true and just and so the consequences of our choices expand rather than limit our freedom to choose. I believe that our Choices influence our opportunities and that we can Nurture greatness by preparing for opportunity to come our way. Lastly, I believe we need to be wise in choosing what we want to become great in or how we will exhibit that greatness. If I suddenly “chose” to become a great NBA basketball player, my chances of becoming great in this are pretty much zero — my previous choices didn’t focus on becoming a star basketball player, and so my freedom in making that choice now is limited. I’m like that mouse with the impossibly high glass wall — it would be unwise for me to set my heart on being on the other side of that wall, i.e. being an NBA basketball player. Had I chosen to be so earlier, the possibility would be greater, though admittedly farfetched as Nature didn’t do me any favors — being under 6 foot. So choose to be great each day, don’t wait too long to choose your greatness as greatness takes time to grow, and choose in a way that leaves you content with what you can and cannot change on your own.

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4 Life Lessons Learned from Training Monkeys

2421768035_809fde666e_oAs a PhD student I had the opportunity to work in a neuroprosthetics lab. My thesis was on decoding individuated finger movements from wireless electromyogram (EMG) recordings of the forearm and from the brain. The concept was that if we could show that these devices could predict desired finger movement based on physiological signals from residual muscles in the forearm or from the brain, then in theory those signals could likely be extracted from a human amputee to control a finger-dexterous prosthetic arm. The eventual application would essentially be Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic arm in Empire Strike’s Back.
darpa_arm_reaching<img class=”progressiveMedia-noscript js-progressiveMedia-inner” src=”https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/1600/1*K0VTzgmzl9NPK52XUm-qPA.jpeg”&gt;
HDT Global’s DARPA Prosthetic Arm

Medical devices are nearly always studied first in animals. For studies involving dexterous finger and thumb movements, the animal model is pretty much exclusively… monkeys. This meant that before I could obtain the data that I would need for my thesis, I would need to train a monkey to perform ON CUE various individual and combined finger flexions and extensions. It can’t be too bad, right? After all, monkeys are smart?

I wrote a program in LabVIEW that had a bar representing each finger. The bottom of each bar had a red circle representing flexion. From what I remember, it took me something like a year and a half to train the monkey fully. It looked somewhat like this….

 Task<img class=”progressiveMedia-noscript js-progressiveMedia-inner” src=”https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/1600/1*D_THIXzHeTcEiVuAgBaJig.png”&gt;

Starting out, I built a manipulandum with switches. The monkey placed his fingers between the flexion and extension switches of the manipulandum. To begin, I started with thumb flexion. I would go in with the monkey, sitting in his chair with his hand in the manipulandum and to begin I would slowly press the monkey’s thumb down onto the switch when the cue appeared on the computer screen. As soon as the program detected that the switch was successfully pressed, the monkey got his reward….Tang!

Tang<img class=”progressiveMedia-noscript js-progressiveMedia-inner” src=”https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/1600/1*4CoiiG8FABqSb_FwNT-uYg.jpeg”&gt;

So in a very real way, I owe my PhD to this sugary orange drink.

“Tang, the drink the astronauts took to the moon.” — Coneheads

#1: Create your purpose or motivation that pushes you forward

What’s your Tang? For the tasks, goals, dreams that you want to accomplish in life, have you created a purpose, motivation, or mission statement that pushes you forward? Like Stephen R. Covey taught in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind! The more concrete and clear your vision, purpose, or mission, the more aware of it you will be and the more aware you are, the better your mind will be able to recognize patterns, people, and opportunities in your life and surroundings that can and will help you achieve that end.

#2: Repetition is the mother of all learning. Consistency is the father of results!

I would slowly try to push the monkey’s thumb less and less to see if the monkey would eventually flex his thumb all by himself to the cue. I would rotate times where I would go in and do a series of trials in which I would help the monkey to complete the task and then I would back off and see if the monkey would do it himself. I would then tried the 90–10 method, made famous in Hitch, where I would do 90% of the flexion movement and see if the monkey would come the other 10%. And I did this day in and day out. Consistently. It seemingly took forever until the lightbulb went off, but when it did… glory, glory hallelujah! Then the monkey would start crushing the task, just doing an awesome job flexing that thumb and getting all the tang that he wanted.

We need to do this in life as well. Sometimes we think, for example, if we exercise for 3 days in a row, we’ve got it all figured out! Repitition is the mother of all learning, and consistently working on those reps will ultimately, over time lead to the results you’re looking for. Keep going. Repeat, repeat, repeat! In consistency there’s power!

“It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently.” — Anthony Robbins

Consistency leads to habit. 

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” — Jim Ryun

After the monkey figured out thumb flexion, I’d let him bask in his success for a couple days, I didn’t change anything up, just let him keep doing the thumb flexion and getting his reward.

#3: Reward yourself when you figure it out!

When you accomplish a goal you’ve set, be sure to reward yourself! Just make sure that your reward keeps you moving in the direction of your original goal. For example, if your goal was to lose 2o lbs. and you did, don’t reward yourself by going out and cramming down a big cinnamon roll or a box of cupcakes, instead align your reward with something that pushes you in the direction of your goal (e.g., buy yourself some new workout clothes!) 

But I didn’t let the monkey just settle into complacency, I mean a data set of just thumb flexions isn’t all that interesting. So, as always happens in life, there’s change.

I started cueing the monkey’s index finger to flex. And just like before, I had to go in and do hundreds or thousands of index finger flexions with the monkey to slowly get him to perform index finger flexion. HOWEVER, as soon as the monkey had learned how to do index finger flexion, I had to go back and interleave thumb flexions with index finger flexions so that the monkey wouldn’t forget what he had already learned.

#4: Interleave or go back and review

This hints back somewhat to lesson #2 regarding repetition. This is because interleaving and reviewing is all about helping us not forget what we have already learned. Interleaving is about applying and doing what we’ve just learned to what we already know. This helps cement both what we’ve newly learned as well as what we’ve learned in the past into long-term memory. I have heard it said often that remember is the most important word in the English language. 

In a famous study, H.F. Spitzer (1939) studied how quickly students forgot material from a textbook:

After 1 day — — —  54% was remembered.

After 7 days — — —  35% was remembered.

After 14 days — — —  21% was remembered.

After 21 days — — —  18% was remembered.

After 28 days — — — 19% was remembered.

After 63 days — — —  17% was remembered.

Without interleaving and review, what you’ve read or learned will soon be forgotten. So, if you liked this article or something that you’ve learned, bookmark it and come back later and re-read it. Highlight things that you read so that your later review is easier and faster. Take notes in the margins or in a notebook, the act of writing helps you to remember as well. I generally use the public library to read books, but occasionally I’ll read one that I know that I’ll want to come back and review, and I’ll buy it and add it to my library so that I can highlight, take notes, and read it next year for review.

Conclusion:

Eventually, I trained the monkey in thumb flexion, index finger flexion, middle finger flexion, thumb and index finger combined flexion, thumb and middle finger combined flexion, and individual extension of the thumb, index, and middle finger. In some regard, I was lucky and blessed — the monkey I trained wasn’t the alpha of the group, so he was much more teachable and humble and he ended up becoming quite a smart monkey when it came to moving his fingers to get Tang!

It was extremely rewarding, as part of the DARPA Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program, to perform the first real-time decode of individuated finger movements based on the wireless EMG recording devices (known as IMES) using decode algorithms that my collaborators and I wrote.

So, if you want to be a “smart monkey” find out what is your Tang. Use repetition and consistency in your favor. Reward yourself when you figure it out, and don’t forget to go back and review!

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What do you do when the monster that killed your father comes for you?

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In 1994, when I was 13, a monster killed my grandpa. It was my first close encounter with death and the mourning that can bring. Wait, you say, monsters don’t exist! As a child your mother lovingly reassured you that there weren’t any monsters under your bed or hiding in your closet. But, au contraire, monsters do exist, we’ve merely given them different names.

The monster that took my grandpa came in February of 1994. Doctors found the monster hiding (see, we know monsters hide!) — in his head. Subsequent tests revealed that the monster had a name: glioblastoma multiforme. This brain tumor is the most aggressive and has been called “the terminator.” Prognosis for this tumor is bleak, with only 3 to 5% of patients surviving greater than 5 years. Without treatment, the patient usually only lives for 3 months. In 1994, radiation therapy wasn’t yet available in the US, but a new treatment Boron Neutron Capture Therapy was available in Japan. Somehow, they were able to send my grandfather to Japan, my Japanese-speaking uncle accompanied him, to undergo Boron Neutron Capture Therapy.

In Boron Neutron Capture Therapy (BNCT), the patient is injected with boron. Tumors have a propensity to absorb the boron. The brain is then subjected to radiation bombardment of neutrons from a nuclear reactor. The boron preferrentially absorbs the neutrons which causes a release of high-energy particles resulting in a biologically destructive nuclear reaction. At the time, in order to increase the success of the radiation therapy, a portion of my grandpa’s skull was temporarily removed and he lay in the radiation treatment room with the nuclear reactor for 8 to 10 hours. The doctors were confident that the treatment would work. But despite the chemotherapy pills and the radiation that they threw at it, the monster came back. By September of that same year, the monster took him away. He was 64.

Glioblastoma multiforme is a scary monster. If cancer is the emperor of all maladies, then glioblastoma multiforme is Napoleon or Alexander the Great — the biggest, baddest of all the emperors of all maladies. What makes this monster scary is that it lives within your brain — within the very organ that most people equate with the essence of their self. Neurological maladies are, in my mind the worst exactly for this reason, it is more difficult to separate the disease and its effects from oneself — simply because it attacks the thinking, feeling, and functioning control center — the brain. It’s also such a scary monster because it methodically kills you. It kills you by essentially squishing your brain from the inside out. The cancer cells grow competing out the healthy cells, increasing the intracranial pressure, and eventually shutting down the nearest functions to the tumor’s epicenter. As it grows outward, more and more functions are lost. This is how it took my granpda. At first he lost his ability to move around on his own, then he lost his ability to speak, and then he lost his life.

Fast forward to late 2015, that same uncle of mine, who accompanied my grandfather, as a source of support, on his last-ditch, miracle hope of BNCT in Japan, meets this same monster this time it’s knocking on his door. And what do you do when you meet your father’s killer and it’s a monster that lives inside your own head? I’m reminded of this line from The Princess Bride:

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Except that last line isn’t meant for the monster, it’s meant for yourself. Now, I’m not facing the monster myself, but I imagine these are some of the things going through my uncle’s mind.

Prepare to die.

Given a prognosis of glioblastoma multiforme I imagine that thus begins an internal struggle between a hope for being one of the 3–5% of survivors and a resignation of acceptance of the daunting probabilities. Seen in one perspective a terminal illness could be a blessing in that it allows one to prepare to die and face death with greater certainty and less surprise. I may be wrong, but I think that the sooner one is able to pass through the stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and arrive at a peaceful acceptance of either good or bad outcomes, the sooner one can be fully present in enjoying their remainder be that months or years. My guess is that my uncle takes comfort in that his “days are known and (his) years shall not be numbered less.” No one gets out of here alive, perhaps one silver lining of this particular monster is that you have time to take your “last dance,” to take family pictures, to live intentionally and deliberately what may be your last moments. At what point do you start thinking, “This is my last ____ fill in the blank”? Given the chance to prepare to die, you put the finishing touches on the legacy you hope to leave behind. Perhaps you take time to live out a few remaining dreams on that bucket list. Maybe, like Tim McGraw sings, you decide:

I went sky divin’,
I went rocky mountain climbin’,
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu.
And I loved deeper,
And I spoke sweeter,
And I gave forgiveness I’ve been denying,
And he said someday I hope you get the chance,
To live like you were dyin’.

What would you do differently if you knew when your time would come, or at least knew with greater probabilities? You’d prepare yourself, your loved ones, and you’d love and would soak up each present moment for who knew how long you’d be able to enjoy today, much less tomorrow? This reminds me of my favorite poem by Edmund Vance Cooke.

How did you die?

Did you tackle that trouble that came your way
With a resolute heart and cheerful?
Or hide your face from the light of day
With a craven soul and fearful?
Oh, a trouble’s a ton, or a trouble’s an ounce,
Or a trouble is what you make it,
And it isn’t the fact that you’re hurt that counts,
But only how did you take it?

You are beaten to earth? Well, well, what’s that?
Come up with a smiling face.
It’s nothing against you to fall down flat,
But to lie there — that’s disgrace.
The harder you’re thrown, why the higher you bounce;
Be proud of your blackened eye!
It isn’t the fact that you’re licked that counts,
It’s how did you fight — and why?

And though you be done to the death, what then?
If you battled the best you could,
If you played your part in the world of men,
Why, the Critic will call it good.
Death comes with a crawl, or comes with a pounce,
And whether he’s slow or spry,
It isn’t the fact that you’re dead that counts,
But only how did you die?

So if fate throws a knuckleball your way and the monster that killed your father comes knocking at your door, take heart, give love, have faith, be present, be grateful for the chance to say your goodbyes, and open the door and tell it with a smile, “Hello. My name is _____. You killed my father. I’m prepared to die.” And who knows, perhaps as that monster walks you through death’s door with his arm around your shoulder you come to realize that that’s not death’s arm around your shoulder at all. That’s not the monster walking beside you into the light. And so you smile even more and put your arm around the waist of your father and walk into the light.

Love you Uncle G!

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If this resonates or aligns with you, check out my blog and share this with your friends who might feel the same way. Best! Justin.

Dad, does the moon like me?

On cultivating wonderment

Moon

I am lucky enough to be the parent who gets to drive my 4-year-old son to preschool every morning. When we’ve successfully put him down at a decent hour the night before, he can be quite alert on our morning drives to school and he can be rather talkative. Which I love. Sometimes he tells me about what he’s built with his Legos. Other times he asks when the next time will be that he can borrow my cell phone to play Minion Rush. All the time it’s with that heartwarming 4-year-old accent of his, mixed in with voweled diphthongs that lengthen even the shortest words. That’s my boy. 🙂

Moonshots

One morning, after a full moon, the moon was clearly visible in the morning sky. I pointed it out to him. As we continued to drive, he noticed that the moon appeared to “follow” us — it basically stayed in the same spot in the sky as we drove along. “Dad, the moon’s following me…. Dad, does the moon like me?” My son clearly thought that the moon was following him and that therefore it only made sense that the moon liked him. At that moment I had a decision to make, I could explain to my son that the moon really wasn’t following us at all it just appears that way because the moon is 238,900 miles away and that at that distance, the angle between where we are and the moon would change so negligibly that it would only appear that the moon was following us; or I could lie, agree with him, and not shatter this adorable sense of self-Ptolemaic importance, somewhat like Calvin’s dad in these Calvin and Hobbes Comics.

Encourage hypothesis before telling how it is

I wonder if in our efforts to parent or to teach we resort too quickly to an explanation of “how it is.”

I wonder if we should be encouraging more hypothesis and exploration on how it could be, letting them think it over in an environment where even the craziest, most illogical hypothesis wouldn’t be ridiculed, prior to presenting the voice of the experts. I took piano lessons for 10 years throughout elementary and high school, and I learned to play the music on the page. But I never learned how to create my own music or how to improvise without notes on the page, and I wonder if with encouragement to explore the notes without a written expert opinion on a sheet of music, I might have been introduced to a world where my piano played not only the music that others had created and written down, but my own music that wasn’t yet written down.

On Wonder

I love this quote by Author Sieglinde de Francesca:

“The child experiences the world through wonderment with amazement, awe & curiosity. It is amazement that captivates the child, awe that opens the child, & curiosity that draws the child further into an ever fascinating world. Wonderment is the first step to learning. Wonder-filled education inspires creative thinking, engages the heart & enlivens the spirit.”

Or this one by poet and essayist Diane Ackerman:

“Wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table. Even a tiny fleck of it stops time.”

Wonder and curiousity are opposites of apathy and depression. Cultivate wonder and curiousity and you’ll chase away apathy and depression.

My Answer

And so as time was stopped as my son wondered at the moon following us, I did my best to respond in a truthful way that wouldn’t shatter his sense of wonder: “The moon is SO far away that it looks like it is following us…. And, yes, the moon does like you. Daddy loves you, too.”

Be a kid. Believe in wonder. Cultivate awe. Take time to bask in moments of wonderment. Life is short, smell the roses, and every once in a while, even if just for a magical moment, believe that the moon shines and follows you around just because it likes you.

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If this resonates or aligns with you, please subscribe to my blog and share this with your friends who might share this same resonation and alignment. Best! Justin.

4 reasons you should tap your maple trees

IMG_1427.JPGFor Ohio winters, this year has been relatively mild. In fact, this year was the earliest since 1980 that maple tree tapping season occurred. Maple sap flows best when temperatures are above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. Here are four reasons why you should consider putting a spile in the sugar maple in your backyard.

1) It increases your lumberjack cred.

Facial hair is in. Google “facial hair fad” and bunches of articles come up talking about the “beard boom.” Facial hair has been shown to make you appear more masculine and attractive. Tapping your maple trees is masculine and will bring out your inner Paul Bunyan. Tapping maple trees was our ancestors’ trip to the candy store — tapping maple trees puts you that much more in touch with your primitive side.

2) Maple sap is nature’s vitamin water

If you haven’t tried maple sap straight from the tree, put that one on your bucket list. Maple sap contains 16 times the potassium and 37 times the calcium and nearly 4 times the amount of magnesium in spring water. Maple sap has been shown, in mice, to improve osteoporosis-like symptoms, to prevent gastric ulcer formation, to lower blood pressure, to mitigate hangovers, to support the immune system, and to supply antioxidants. Oh, and did I mention that it tastes great too?

3) Boiling down the maple syrup: if you do most of it outside it’s an excuse to play with fire; if you do it inside, on the stove, WITH A VENT FAN, it heats your home.

Ever wonder why real maple syrup is so expensive? I’m not talking about the fake maple syrup that is just sugar or high fructose corn syrup with maple flavoring. (You know what they say about how you get fake maple syrup — tap a telephone pole.) I’m talking about real life grade A or B maple syrup. In 2012 over 6 million gallons of maple syrup was stolen from a Canadian stockpile. You may have thought, gee, that’s stupid — someone really wants some pancakes — except when you consider that maple syrup sells for $37/gallon which brings the the total value of that stolen maple syrup to about $18 million — leading this to be called the Great Maple Syrup Heist. Part of the reason why maple syrup is this expensive, is because of the time and fuel that it takes to boil off the water to concentrate the natural sugar content of the sap. Sap is about 2% sugar and it roughly takes 40 gallons of maple sap boiled down to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. Build a big fire and grab an old pot and boil the water off outside — this is an excuse to get outside in the winter and build a fire! Be safe, but let out your inner pyro just a little bit 🙂 Once you’ve boiled off most the water bring it inside to finish it off.

If you don’t have room to boil it off outside, boil it on the stove in your kitchen — only if you have a good vent fan to help vent out the water vapor, otherwise the excess water vapor given off may damage the walls, ceiling, or paint in your kitchen. Grab a book to read and a spoon to stir the sap/syrup and enjoy the warmth given off as you boil down!

4)Real, HOMEMADE maple syrup tastes INCREDIBLE!

Have you ever had HOMEMADE ice cream? How about HOMEMADE root beer? There’s something amazingly powerful about being responsible for producing or making the food you eat. It’s like eating your pancakes with maple syrup imbued with meaning! It just plain tastes better. Maybe it is the work that you put in to it that enriches the taste, but you can’t beat backyard homemade maple syrup. Nectar of the gods!

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If this resonates or aligns with you, please subscribe to my blog and share this with your friends who might share this same resonation and alignment. Best! Justin.

Rubbernecking Johnny Manziel

johnny-manziel-shirt-d61ab5706e3297ad
Fresh Brewed Tees’ Billy Manziel T-shirt (Twitter.com)

I live in beautiful Northeast Ohio, which for the most part tends to be known for its swing state status, the home of Rock and Roll (at least the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), and the birthplace of American Football. Yet despite being the cradle of the pigskin, we’re perhaps better known for our crummy football team and the city’s professional sports championship drought. There’s a T-shirt sold here in Cleveland that lists over 2o quarterbacks that the Browns have had since 1999 (that’s a lot!). We go through quarterbacks only slightly faster than we go through our coaches. Here in Cleveland, we pay more former head coaches TO NOT COACH the Browns, than we do TO COACH the Browns. We’ve got to be getting close as a state to changing our motto to: “Next Year…”

Anyway, if you follow the Browns, or even Johnny Manziel, or even let’s say the NFL at all, then you probably have heard about our newest train wreck quarterback. He was a rising star at Texas A&M. They called him Johnny Football. The things he could do running on his feet, scrambling to make plays were fodder for the highlight reels. And then came draft day, and keep in mind that when Kevin Costner made the movie Draft Day–it was set in Cleveland. Draft Day here is like a holiday party where you’ve drunk too much. Everything’s great the day of the party and at the party, but then you wake up the next morning and you’re all hung over. So goes the Draft for Cleveland–everything seems great… and then the season starts and the team figuratively seems to huddle around the toilet occasionally puking all over the place. There’s a reason our football stadium has been dubbed “the factory of sadness.” On Draft Day, two years ago, even though the Johnny Football hype was intense and mock drafts had Johnny being drafted in the top 10, he dropped like a rock. And Cleveland true to form picked up another late first round quarterback. But Johnny was different, he was cocky, he was gonna “wreck the league,” he walked around flashing “show me the money” signs.

But two years later the only thing he’s wrecking is his future and his life. The depths to which Johnny Manziel has gone to feed his addiction, most think its alcohol or drugs, blew up the internet recently. Supposedly benched because of the NFL’s concussion protocol, Johnny Manziel skipped showing up for his concussion evaluation and instead flew to Vegas. But, in order to not be noticed, he donned a blonde wig and sunglasses and went by the name: “Billy” in order to gamble, drink, party. I’m not making this up, it was just too good to be true for all the sports reporters and late night comedy news shows. I don’t know what it is about us human beings and finding satisfaction in watching human train wrecks. I wonder if we find a smug satisfaction in comparing our lives to the absolute mess of train-wrecks and we think, “I may not be famous or making money hand-over-fist like so-and-so, but at least my life or future isn’t like —fill in the blank).”And we feel better than and superior to the train wrecked individual. #winning. But when we do this, are we really, winning?

When I read that Paul Manziel, Johnny’s father, had mentioned that they’d tried to get Johnny to check into and stay in a rehab facility twice over the last week but that Johnny had refused and that his own father felt that unless Johnny can get help he doesn’t think he’ll survive to see is 24th birthday. Johnny Football? #winning?

Ouch, can you imagine reading that coming from your father? The sad thing is that it was pretty obvious that it was said from a place of concern and love for his son. My heart goes out to the Manziel family. How sad to seemingly have all the opportunity in the world, to be a huge sensation with a star rising with an exponential trajectory, only two years later to have completely destroyed his value and reversed his trajectory so that now instead of going nearly straight up, its headed nearly straight down. And that’s just from a career perspective. Based on what Paul Manziel said the family isn’t worried about Johnny’s career in football (which is pretty much over)–they are worried about his life!

So what does the average American feel about this? Does he/she sit back in smug satisfaction over another human being nose diving into the ground? Are we made any more successful, any happier when more people around us fail or make a mess of their lives? No, of course not, it is only in comparison that we feel this way–when we are proud. C.S. Lewis said, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.” When human train wrecks seem to be bent on running their lives into the ground, let’s not jump on their backs in an attempt to lift ourselves higher. This only causes us all to sink deeper together into the mud. Let’s put on our empathy and feel for the sadness and struggle these human beings are enduring and causing.

As we cruise down the highways of life and come upon the wrecks on the side of the road, as we rubberneck and look at the devastation, if we can, let’s do like Meghan Vogel did,  a high school runner who when a competitor fell near the end of the race in front of her, stopped and carried her competitor across the finish-line, and if that’s not practical let’s at least extend our hearts out in empathy to feel for the victims of the wrecks — both themselves and their loved ones.

Here’s to hoping that Johnny makes it well beyond his 24th birthday, let’s hope he has many more “Next Years”–just maybe not as our quarterback.

Share your voice, even if it’s just in words

sound-856770_960_720Welcome. Well, come and comment and read. You are just in time, and just in case you have the time, I have brought the words.

I remember reading in the introduction of a Spanish dictionary a phrase that roughly translated to “our language is only limited by the extent of our memory and the rest the dictionary may supply”; however, what came to my mind when I read this was — your mind is only limited by your words. We can expand the limits of our minds by increasing our vocabularies and I believe by increasing the quality of the words, the ideas, the stories that we listen to and read.

I believe that by etching the ideas and thoughts that float through our minds and constraining them to the written word can make those ideas more real. This process cements what we have written and allows us to more fully understand the width, the depth, and breadth of the ideas and concepts. Writing can be a form of meditation almost, it can empty our minds so that our thoughts can be more fully examined in the light of day. This is one reason why I have chosen to write. I write for myself, because doing so is part therapy. I write because I have a voice and I believe that perhaps in sharing my words not only will I benefit, but perhaps some others may find value. But what do I write about? What could I possibly share that others would enjoy taking the time toread? We live in an attention-deficit world — what new video, podcast, show, article is the hot thing? There one minute, gone the next. Everyone trying to go viral, clamoring: NOTICE ME! NOTICE ME! As though one’s value or importance could be measured by the number of followers he had, the number of likes, comments, retweets or shares a post generated. What can I bring to that? Me. My voice. My words. Because no one else’s words have been filtered through my brain, tweaked and influenced by my experiences, softened by the empathies of my struggles. And by extension, what can you bring? You. Your voice. But perhaps where your voice lives isn’t words on a page, perhaps your voice is conveyed in the notes of a song, or through the love of a mom. No one else’s voice is your voice. Like Jonathan Fields’ Good Life Project Creed (http://www.goodlifeproject.com/creed/) reads “Don’t try to be different, own the fact that you already are.” So speak up! Share it. If Adele could only sing in a forest with no one else around to hear, she’d still sing, even if it was only to get the music out of her. At least she herself would hear it. I like how Henry Van Dyke put it, “Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except the best.” Remember the adage, don’t die with your music still within you.

And so I write. So welcome to my “must,” to my words, to my voice. Perhaps I am the only one who heard it. But, just in case I’m not, then you were just in time, so please pass on my words. My name is Justin and this is Just In Words.