Tonight we went to the City Creek mall, temple square, the children’s section of the Museum of Church History, and the Vertical Diner (delicious vegan restaurant). We’ve eaten out four times in the last week. Not good for our finances. But then, it’s not very often I get a five day weekend. It sure went by fast. My whole life could pass by in a blur as a stay-at-home dad. Though it’s good for me. It may sound trite, but last night it hit me how important family really is, that no sense of career accomplishment can ever compare to it. It’s nice to walk with giants and carve our niches on the edifice of time, but after the work day is over, we’re really not ourselves until we’re with our closest friends and family. And I guess that’s what life is really all about: just hanging out with the people with whom we feel most ourselves. It was occurring to me that when I hit forty, I’m inevitably going to have a midlife crisis. Then, with my best years behind me, I’ll progressively get weaker and more senile until I wither away and die. I’m so glad I have my Teresa to lean on through it all. The thought of approaching the horrors of life’s long and dreary road alone seems — at least lately — unbearable. I no longer require fame and fortune. All I really want in life is to have a happy family life. Really.
I watched Joes Versus the Volcano tonight. That movie has some profound religious overtones. Here’s three quotes that I thought were brilliant:
ANGELICA Did you ever think about killing yourself? JOE What? Why would you do that? ANGELICA Why shouldn't I? JOE Some things take care of themselves. They're not your job. Maybe they're not even your business. And ...PATRICIA My father says almost the whole world's asleep. Everybody you know, everybody you see, everybody you talk to. He says only a few people are awake. And they live in a state of constant total amazement.
And ...JOE Do you believe in God? PATRICIA I believe in myself. JOE What's that mean? PATRICIA I have confidence in myself. JOE I've done a lot of soul searching lately. I've been asking myself some tough questions. You know what I've found out? PATRICIA What? JOE I have no interest in myself. I think about myself, I get bored out of my mind.
Today at church, as my family sat down and waited for the meeting to begin, it occurred to me that I was smiling. I didn’t know why I was smiling. Nothing was on my mind. I was just existing … with a smile on my face. To me it was enough evidence to debunk the claim that there’s no such thing as happiness, only happy moments. If one’s average state of of being, aside from intense emotional moments, is pleasant, carefree, and healthy, I think it’s safe to say such a one is happy. And how is it possible?
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).
That’s how it’s possible.
Tonight I attended a concert featuring the Elgar Variations by the Utah Valley Symphony and storyteller Kevin Kling, who told short stories throughout. It was amazing. But what struck me the most from this evening was a brief interchange I had with my parents. My mom was playing cello in the orchestra. After the show, she came down to talk with us, and my dad announced in his German “code” to my mom (somehow oblivious to the fact that almost all of his children took at least two years of German) that he’d gotten a new job. My mom was thrilled and gave him a big hug. From what I’d gathered from my dad before the concert, this job, while an improvement in virtue of a shorter commute, wouldn’t necessarily pay any better than his last one, and his last one was a huge step down from the one before that. As the consequence of hard times for company, he went from making over $80k as an insurance worker to $15 / hr as a sales rep. Yet he’s said on multiple occasions that while he doesn’t enjoy the sales job, it makes good money, so he’s all right. Relatively speaking, $15 / hr for a guy who was formerly making more than five times that amount is lousy money. But his humility about it all has impressed me, showing an example of one whose heart is in providing for his family, not material gain. After he announced this to my mom, she was thrilled and gave him a big hug.
Now it just so happens that I also just got a new job, with which I’ll be making not much less than my dad was making a few years ago. I didn’t refer to any numbers, but I did tell my mom the news, as it seemed a fitting moment. She was glad for me as a mother should be, but I noticed that her enthusiasm didn’t match what she’d originally showed my dad. It was such an interesting paradigm shift, to suddenly be the big business man while my parents are thrilled to be getting an entry level position. It was a testament to me that life has little to do with money and everything to do with family, especially one’s spouse, whom we suffer the bad times and enjoy the good times with. I’m glad that they have each other, and I’m glad that I have my Teresa. Comparing ourselves to others is worthless. Who knows, maybe in a few decades, hard times will hit again, and I’ll be grateful to get a job as an ice cream scooper while my son becomes the lead engineer for the latest stealth bomber. I hope, in that moment, my wife will congratulate our son, but that she’ll give me an extra big hug, because I’ll still be her number one, for richer or for poorer. I’ve realized that paradigms and world views can change over night, that all we are is dust in the wind, and that before too long, we’ll join our ancestors in the stars. I pray that I won’t lose sight of what matters most, so that when I take my place in the great beyond, it will be in a family constellation and not as a lone star whose obsession with material gain eclipsed the one lesson he needed to learn: to love and be loved.
Well, after an entirely sleepless night, a long walk at three in the morning, a sick day, and a trip to the temple, where we received a very definite answer, Teresa and I are convinced that the food storage job is the right fit for us right now. Its not the choice I want, but it’s the right choice. What made the difference was this verse I immediately happened upon when opening the scriptures:
“If thou borrowest of thy neighbor, thou shalt restore that which thou hast borrowed …” (D&C 136:25).
When I was on my walk, I realized how passionate I felt about the teaching job and listed all the good I could do with it. But the biggest reason I felt a need to consider the other job was because it would allow me to pay back those who had generously made my position possible. It came down to a simple principle: others first, self last. Though I knew I could do good with the teaching job, I realized it was hypocritical to try to do good with someone else’s money. I first had to meet my obligations to others. Thus the scripture I read in the temple confirmed my decision.
Still, it’s not easy. It’s like having two very qualified, very attractive suiters, and though you may choose the slightly better candidate, you’ll know that you turned down someone else with whom you could have been very happy.
I’ve been a very conflicted soul over these last few days. My friend Will eagerly told me about an opening for a music teacher at his high school, which is a special charter school entirely devoted to teaching students the art of film making. Unlike traditional music classes focused on the performing arts, I’d teach kids how to record music, write and mix film scores, and do other awesome stuff. Basically I’d be able to teach whatever I want on the subject of music and film making over five periods. I had an excellent interview with the principal, and he told me that the job is mine if I’m interested. The biggest con is that the school is about an hour’s commute from where I live, and the salary would be about five grand less than what I’m making now.
But there’s all sorts of pros. One, teachers at this school only have to work one-hundred-eighty days per year, leaving almost three months of paid summer vacation, plus long breaks for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring break, and all sorts of holidays. In addition, teachers get eight paid vacation days. That adds up to a lot of time in which I could be pursuing my dreams, writing musicals, and whatnot. Other benefits are hanging out with film making buddies, having access to the school’s high end audio/video equipment and facilities (the school is in a former Channel 2 News building, including large sound stages with green screens), the free film making labor of eager high school students, a much more fun atmosphere than the corporate environment (I’ve already taught high school for two years, and it was usually a blast), and the fulfillment of making a difference in the lives of kids. About half of the students there are at “high risk”, so it would be a great opportunity to help turn kids’ lives around and feel good about myself instead of hating my job like most people.
The problem is, (1) the manager at my current company has already talked about giving me a significant raise, and if I were to announce that I’m leaving, I’d almost surely be offered one, thus making the cut in salary a little more painful. (2) My current job is exactly two miles away from my house, within a comfortable biking distance. Thus an hour’s commute will be painful indeed (except for the fact that I would carpool with my buddies, which would be fun and save about two-thirds of the cost).
(3) It just so happened within a week ago that another company discovered me on LinkedIn, invited me in for an interview, and just today, offered me almost exactly twice the salary that I would be making as a teacher. This company is about two-thirds of the commute to the high school. It’s a food storage company, and it’s doing really well. They said they would offer me stock options, and that there was a high likelihood that the company would be sold within five or so years, and every member of the company would walk away with lots of money. I would be a graphic designer, coder, and videographer, making websites, product videos, etc. (similar to what I’m doing now). They love the work I’ve done and have promised me lots of creative freedom, which I long for. It’s not a big company, just a small team of tight but very successful friends who are both making bank and making the world a better place through selling food storage supplies. While I’m definitely not as passionate about marketing as film making and music, there’s something exciting about sharpening my skills, pursuing real world excellence, and being on the front lines of a productive industry as opposed to taking a government salary for something that wouldn’t necessarily challenge me.
To make things more complicated, Teresa and I have been trying hard to get out of debt and be smart with our money by sticking to a fifteen year mortgage plan. My parents gave us some money which helped us by our house, but now they’re coming upon hard times, and we really want to pay it all back to them as soon as possible. Taking the high school job would make this very difficult.
Years ago, when I was first contemplating giving up my ways as a starving artist (while I was a family man), I came to the conclusion that one of the best ways to becoming truly awesome in this world was to first amass lots of wealth, like Bruce Wayne or Sir Percy Blackney, which would then empower me to devote my life to battling the forces of evil. Thus the higher-paying job is appealing. And yet, in the last year and a half since I entered the world of real jobs, I’ve accomplished so little, relatively to my former rates, as far as artistic works, for which I live, and I seriously fear that I might lose my passion and skill for the arts if I can’t devote more serious time to them while I’m still young. Thus the teaching job is appealing.
So that’s my dilemma. Do I take the road of passion, philanthropy, fun, and free time, accepting that having poor finances is just a fact of life, or do I put off my passions a little longer to secure a solid foundation for my family and career (doing something genuinely cool), liberating myself and others through good finances, though running the risk of becoming a servant to Lord Bore? What do I do? I didn’t seek either of these opportunities. They just came to me. And I’m pretty certain it’s a test from God.
“As I have reviewed the past 49 years, I have made some discoveries. One is that countless experiences I have had were not necessarily those one would consider extraordinary. In fact, at the time they transpired, they often seemed unremarkable and even ordinary. And yet, in retrospect, they enriched and blessed lives—not the least of which was my own. I would recommend this same exercise to you—namely, that you take an inventory of your life and look specifically for the blessings, large and small, you have received” (Thomas S. Monson).
I’ve found this principle especially true in my own life. When I record my day-to-day stories and allow myself a few moments to reflect, I often discover that, like the characters in my stories, the tasks I’ve been facing, though they may have seemed mundane at the time, were part of an overarching theme. I believe that each day can be filled with deeply meaningful interactions, insights, and growths, and we don’t need to do anything to facilitate these events. All that’s required of us is to be aware of them and realize their significance. I vow that I’m going to break free from the trap of thinking, “Nothing important happened to day.” How many precious memories have I thrown away because of this near-sided mentality? How much of my life is forever gone? I want to follow the example of Wilford Woodruff and feel like a “fish out of water” until I’ve made a record of each day.
Tonight during our “companionship inventory”, Teresa led the discussion in planning our three-year-old’s birthday party. I had an existential moment, thinking, “A three-year-old’s birthday party? Don’t I have higher and nobler things to attend to? What am I doing with my life? Do these trivial little pursuits really matter?” The answer came to me at once. Yes. These things matter a great deal. Eternal life is right now, and it’s comprised of little things, little wonderful things.
It’s been said that we should love the sinner and hate the sin. No one can embody this principle like Christ himself. Only one with a profound love for the entire family of Adam could willingly subject himself to the unfathomable ignominy of the atonement. Furthermore, only one who’s taken upon himself the horrors of sin to such an extent could know how terrible sin really is. Only he could have the capacity to hate sin as it should truly be hated. If Christ had the slightest tolerance for sin, surely he wouldn’t have taken upon himself the sins of all mankind, and the atonement would have been imperfect. So knowing what he must have known about sin, why would he have subjected himself to its horrors? Why would he willingly take upon himself my filthy sins? To an equal and opposite degree of his hate for sin, he must have loved us. Only he is capable of both such profound love and profound hate. But surely we’re not exempt from following such a brilliant mentor. To be like God, we also must both love and hate. Of course I must love everyone I meet, unless I’m to believe that Christ’s atonement didn’t include them. And of course I must hate the very appearance of sin, unless I’m to believe that Christ’s atonement wasn’t necessary. What an interesting duality. What a delightful paradox. What a challenge for each of us.
All my life I’ve contemplated this question. If you think it’s an absurd notion, perhaps you don’t come from the same planet as me. Since my infancy, I was taught the virtues of being obedient. But in First Grade, I was taught by the class clown, Jacob K., the virtues of being rebellious. Saying naughty things in class and defying the teacher made the other children laugh, boosting my adoration and self-confidence. I knew I’d achieved something great when Jacob, the greatest comedic genius of my six-year-old world, said to me, “You’re a funny kid,” thus laying the foundation for a lifetime of class-clowning. The lesson: evil is cool.
As I progressed through school, my older sister started listening to popular music filled with screaming guitars, grungy singers, and mind-numbing drums. To my innocent ears in a household of classical music, these sounds were the very essence of evil. But then my friends started listening to popular music. Then everyone started listening to it. One of the most common phrases of my tribal vernacular was, “What kind of music do you like?” I learned very quickly that “Mendelssohn and Grieg” weren’t acceptable answers. If I wanted to get anywhere, I had to learn to bang my head to the latest jungle beats. The lesson: evil is cool.
The older I got, the cooler evil became. Irreverence and profanity became funnier and funnier. The filtering of edgy media became looser and looser. Childlike defenders of the unequivocal right were replaced by armies of the devil’s advocates. The God of Israel was replaced by the god of moral relativism … and even above him, the god of Coolness. As a native New Yorker in a former Institute class put it, “Where I came from, everything that was evil was cool.”
What if evil really is cool, and I’m just too old-fashioned to recognize it? What if Billy Joel is right, and it’s only the good who die young, that, all things considered, it would be better to laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints? After all, in medieval times, people thought the augmented fourth was of the devil, and the Catholic church officially denounced forks. But without the augmented fourth, how would Tony sing about Maria? And without forks … need I illustrate such an obvious dystopia? These things were never evil, they were just new.
More on this thought tomorrow.