On the happy perspective.
Several years ago Thomas Griffith, who was then my stake president and Institute of Religion instructor, told a story that I often bring to mind since. Its message was the same as that of a discussion I had with my father several years earlier.
In this story President Griffith, then an energetic young lawyer, was visiting with a man in his ward who had at one time had a high-paying career but had somehow been removed from it. I don’t recall the details, but I rather think the removal was based on a false accusation of wrongdoing or something of the sort. The sort of thing that makes people bitter. But this man seemed quite happy.
When asked about his livelihood, this remarkable man replied simply “I feed twenty families.”I could have the number wrong… Intrigued, Tom pried further and discovered that, upon losing his job, this man had taken a temporary job repairing someone’s roof, and then found more roofing jobs and still more until he started hiring help and, at the time Tom had asked, had twenty men on his payroll.
There’s a nice success story in this, of course, the “you can’t keep a good man down” kind of bootstraping attitude. But that’s not the point I want to make.
Consider the perspective this man showed in his reply. He didn’t say “I own a construction company” as a consolation boast, nor even “I’m a roofer” in a more humble (or self-pitying) honesty. He said “I feed twenty families”. His focus, his perspective, was on the good he was doing: not just keeping roofs from leaking, but keeping families alive and together.
Years before I heard this story from Thomas Griffith I had learned a similar lesson from my father. I had just concluded two years of full-time missionary service and was talking over various education and career alternatives. In our conversation I made some comment about wanting a job where I could “help people”. My father, then a computer programmer for an insurance company, made a very sage reply. Honest work, he said, was helping people, no matter what that work was. Making a piece of insurance rating software a little bit better or a little bit faster could save millions of people a few dollars or a few seconds each. There may be no one person to feel blessed by my father’s work, but that was just because he was spreading his service out such that no one person was the principal recipient.
Often when I speak with stressed-out friends they will give me a justification for their stress along the lines of “If I mess up, I’ll lose my job” or “my grades will be too low to get into my chosen career” or “I’ll blow my chance for a second date.” Often they’re exagerating the potentiality for suboptimal outcomes, but even when they’re right I feel like saying “And? What’s so bad about that?”
There is great value in finding a good perspective about your current situation. There can be an even greater value in finding that perspective about your worst-case fall-back activity. If I flunked out of my Ph.D. program, failed to find a job, was evicted from my home… I’ll bet I could be one miracle of a homeless guy. I’m certain I could learn to beg in a way that made people really feel good about their charity. I could give an ear to down-and-out wretches who would otherwise go mad with loneliness. I could probably help a few addicts sober up and prevent a few crimes by being in the right place at the right time.
Your whole future hangs on this one test? So what? It’s not like failing will result in eternal damnation and endless torment. There’s not even much reason for it to result in present sadness. Do your part and then let whoever has to make the final call worry about if they want to say it’s good enough or not. Don’t sacrifice your sanity today just to slightly increase the odds of one of several possible tomorrows.
A friend once said of me, “I think you would enjoy a slow death.” He meant it as a joke about my cheeriness, but it’s one of the greatest compliments I’ve received. The death part… well, death is a part of life, so… whatever. But the slow part: that means I have some life in between, some time to find some way to make the world a little happier. And time, however brief, however painful—time is a gift beyond compare.