Solve Life’s Problems by Wisely Exercising Agency
It's a pleasure to be here. The president reminds me of my students. Regardless of what I tell them, they seem to forget quickly. So for those of you who are keeping score, MG stands for "Morris Garages." It's a bit of trivia you will never need for the rest of your life.
It's a pleasure to be here. I love being among you. You are a royal generation. My talk this morning has to do with problems. I seem to be an expert on problems; it seems wherever I go they increase. But I've had the opportunity after I sold my business a number of years ago to start doing some business consulting. Consulting small businesses is absolutely the easiest thing that there is to do. The reason is that every small business has exactly the same problem. That's the owner.
A few months ago I was consulting with a friend who has a business. We're trying to return it to some profitability, and in that process I had an opportunity to meet with his wife. I asked his wife what being successful in the business would mean to her—what she might suggest we might do in order to fix the problems. She sent me a letter, an email, the other day, and answered the question. What she said to me shocked me. She told me exactly what she thought the business could do to solve the problems. What she was describing was a life completely without problems. Her very definition of success was the absence of any opposition. She genuinely felt that having problems meant that there was something wrong in your life.
I could see where people would get such an idea. As you go to church, as you come here to school, as you see other people, people are genuinely happy. And the assumption is that people are happy because they have no problems. This is false. People are happy in spite of their problems. Living a life without problems is describing the life that we led in the Garden of Eden, but as I recall, we left that garden. It may be describing the life that we may eventually once live. But it does not describe this life. Life as we now have it has problems. We have problems to test us, to teach us, and to help us grow. It is resistance training for the soul.
We can suffer through our problems or we can embrace them. We can learn from them and be strengthened by them, but we cannot ever avoid them. Such was the attitude of Joseph, sold into Egypt. If ever there was a cause to justify the blaming of others for his current lousy circumstance, it was Joseph. But Joseph did not spend his time blaming others for his problems; he went about solving his problems. He spent his time applying gospel principles to the problems at hand. He remained faithful by living the commandments in spite of his feeling that all was lost. He continued to pray and to listen to the promptings of the Spirit. It was years after he interpreted the dream of the baker that his prayers were finally answered. In spite of overwhelming discouragement, he never lost hope.
After years of being separated from his family and spending his life as a slave in a foreign country, when Joseph was finally reunited with the very brothers who had sold him into slavery, what was his attitude? Was it one of revenge? Did he seek to get even? No, he promptly forgave them, and he had the foresight and the knowledge to not ascribe his problems to his brothers but to actually give credit, interestingly enough, to the Lord. He said, "So now it was not you that [sold me into Egypt], but God." (Genesis 45:8)
The power of good and evil are not equal. They never have been and they never will be. The actions of a jealous brother, though vile, wicked and hurtful, were nothing in the hands of God. Yes, there is opposition in all things, but never believe that the outcome is in doubt or that the forces are equal. They are not. God's power is infinite, and the power of Satan is limited. It will be bound and is finite. In God's due time, Satan and his minions will be banished forever. Because of his matchless power, God knows the beginning from the end. All things work together for those who serve Him.
The president mentioned that I grew up here in Salt Lake City. I grew up on a wonderful street, Michigan Avenue. It is an idyllic street—tree-lined with huge sycamore trees, so large their branches actually cover the entire street. It makes a canopy of leaves so deep and so dense that the summer sun cannot penetrate through it. Another great aspect of this street is that it has a slight incline to it. Now an incline to you or me may not be a big deal. When I turned 16, it could be said that the cars that I drove are less reliable than the ones I drive now, so the incline on this street was very valuable to me. And something that you may not know how to do, I became an expert at, and that was starting a car by compression. The cars that I drove rarely had batteries that held a charge, and rarely had starter motors that worked regularly. And so I learned, and some of you have learned, that in some cars you can actually start them by pushing them. And so you push them, and oh, if you have a hill, the pushing is much easier. You push them to a running start, then you jump in the car, shove it in gear, and pop the clutch. And hopefully, if everything else is working, it starts. I made a habit of going to school this way.
So years later, when I was visiting my parents at this same home on Michigan Avenue, as I was driving down to their house, I noticed another young man pushing a car down the street. I knew immediately what was going on. So I parked my car and jumped out and started to push. He didn't ask me any questions; I didn't ask him any questions. It was obvious. We pushed the car down Michigan, he jumped in, put it in gear, popped the clutch. Nothing happened. We turned the corner—we go south down 17th East. It's a little bit better hill. He jumps in again, puts it in gear, pops the clutch. Nothing.
Now we turn west, going on Yalecrest. It's not as good a hill, but we have no other choice. The third time he jumps in, puts it in gear, pops the clutch. Nothing. Now I'm out of breath. I'm three blocks from my car. But I say, "Listen, I've got battery cables in my car. Let me go back there and I'll bring my car, we'll jump the battery."
He says, "Oh, it's not the battery that's the problem. I'm out of gas."
See, you cannot apply correct principles to the wrong problems. It never works. Solving problems in the Lord's way requires the following steps:
1) Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith is the unmatched power of the universe, and it will be now, and it will be throughout eternity.
2) Repentance. Now repentance does not mean that you have done something morally wrong. Too often we associate problems with sin. Not all problems are the result of sin. But by repentance I mean that we change our behavior. We change our attitude. We increase our patience and our understanding. We change our behavior to more closely resemble that of the Savior. Never be afraid of change. This is the only means by which things can ever improve. It is the only way that you will ever be better than you are now.
Do you know that in order to become perfect you will need to change everything about you? Think about it. What part of you today is perfect, or so wonderful that you cannot be made better by your Father in Heaven. Everything you need to change or improve will make you perfect. Why hold onto something that is not as good as it can be? Why not embrace change that brings you closer to your Father in Heaven?
3) You must search out solutions before you ask your Father in Heaven for help. You must do all that you can do to solve the problems before you have standing before the Lord. Remember the Lord's correction to Oliver Cowdery: "Behold, [Oliver,] you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. You must study it out in your [own] mind; [and then Oliver] if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you." (D&C 9:7-8)
Here is where the growth takes place. Here is where the learning occurs. It is in studying it out that we learn the principles and how to apply them. We must also ask in faith, listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and proceed line upon line, precept upon precept.
Solving problems and agency are closely linked. You cannot solve problems without agency. I had a young man come into my office years ago to apply for a job as a manager. As I visited with him, he told me that he had at one time owned his own business. I immediately listened to this and I said, "Tell me about it. What happened to it?"
He said, "Oh, we went out of business."
He said, "Well, we were undercapitalized."
I thought to myself, "No, you, young man, were poorly managed."
You see, we like to blame everything else on the problems we have. We rarely want to take possession of them. But by failing to take possession or ownership of our problems, we lose all power to correct them. The wonderful thing about being the problem is that you automatically have the power to solve it. You cannot and never will correct a problem for someone else. You can only correct problems where you are at the center. You can only correct your problems. Isn't that wonderful?
Elder LeGrand Richards, grandfather of our good president, was fond of quoting this little poem by an unknown author, and I hope I have this right:
For every worry under the sun
There is a remedy or there is none.
If there be one, hurry up and find it.
If there be none, then never mind it.
I know that many of you are facing immense challenges. You may have received bad news from home. You may have sent bad news home. You may be failing in school, and you may feel as though you are failing in life. And what's even worse, it may actually be true. But your Father in Heaven is aware of you, and has already fashioned a solution for your problems.
A young man was walking along the streets of New York and he fell into a large hole. The hole was so deep and the sides of the hole were so steep that he could not possibly get out. And so he called to the pedestrians above, seeking someone's help. No one stopped to help him. Finally a man heard his pleas and jumped into the hole. The man at first was shocked. He couldn't believe what had just happened. And he was bewildered. "What are you doing?" he asked. "Now we are both stuck in the hole."
The second man waited patiently for the first to finish, and then he said, "You do not understand. I have been in this hole before, and I know the way out."
My brothers and sisters, I have been in this hole before, and I know the way out. Years ago, I suffered discouragement beyond that that I could ever have imagined. My life seemed to be without purpose. I had been offended; I had been hurt by dear friends. The discouragement lasted for an extended period of time, and I sought help at every turn. I talked to those friends that stood by me. I had a good friend in the ward where I grew up, who had become a general authority, whom I trusted. I went and visited with him. He gave me a blessing and great advice, but the discouragement continued.
Oftentimes, I went to visit my mother and she counseled with me. I can only now imagine how frightening that must have been for a mother to talk to a son who was contemplating serious mistakes. In desperation, she said, "Ralph, what does your patriarchal blessing say?"
I was indignant. I said, "Mother, I've read it. It doesn't say anything about what I'm dealing with. In fact, I can tell you exactly what it says; I have it memorized." Now, when I got my patriarchal blessing, by a good patriarch, when I was in high school, I loved it. It was wonderful. And as I read it over and over, I saw in that patriarchal blessing what I termed were a few little literary phrases. They were just little tiny phrases that seemed to connect the paragraphs. And I dismissed them as flourish. Now, years later, I'm reciting my patriarchal blessing to my mother, and I come to the first phrase. Here's what it was: "Live for these things."
Do you think that had an impact? Do you think I knew at that point that my Father in Heaven knew years earlier what I would be going through then, and that He had already fashioned a solution? Wherever you are, whatever problem you are facing, there is a solution. Never give in to despair. Never give in to discouragement. Never give in to giving in. Because the Lord God knows the beginning from the end and already knows the solution to your problems, it will come at the right time and in the right manner, if you will live for it.
Now, do you know that there is no other creature on this earth that has problems? It's something that we have all to ourselves. Isn't that wonderful? Cows don't have problems, neither do fish. They don't have the capacity to have problems, because they have no agency. They have no capacity to think or to reason or to make choices.
I have here in my hand some seeds. They are corn seeds, and I picked them out from the food I fed my pigeons this morning. These seeds—they could be wheat, they could be corn, they could be barley, they could be mustard seeds—they are entirely dependent upon my actions for their growth. They cannot decide where or when they will be planted, when they will be watered, or when they will get sunlight. If they are never planted, then never grow. They cannot have agency without choice. The seeds cannot act, but can only be acted upon. You cannot have agency without knowledge of right and wrong, or without being able to distinguish good from evil.
Our agency is God-given, given to us in the pre-earth existence, but it was also in the preexistence that this agency was first threatened. Lucifer tried to destroy our agency and for this rebellion was cast out. And yet many of us destroy our own agency in much the same manner. We do this when we deny the choices that we have.
Let me give you an example. Years ago, as I had Little and Company, as a condition of employment I had my employees sign a confidentiality and nondisclosure agreement. The agreement was written as such that they could work for any company in the world except one, who was our direct competitor here in Salt Lake. This agreement seemed reasonable and fair when they signed it, but after that it became less fair. It surprised me, then, that when one of our employees left the company for personal reasons unrelated to job performance—I think she left to take care of a mother who was aging—when she returned, we did not have employment for her, and so she went directly down to our competitor and applied for a job.
I was shocked. I asked her about it. I said, "Tell me, I don't understand. How can you do this? You know you have an agreement with me not to do specifically this exact thing."
She dismissed it out of hand. She said, "Ralph, you don't understand. I have to work. I don't have any other choice."
I thought to myself, "Of course you do. You always have choices. You always have the choice to do what is right." We deny our agency when we deny the choices that we really have.
Let me return to the analogy of the seed. If I plant these seeds and they begin to grow, what will they become? Will they become a tree? Will they become a monkey? Of course not. Corn seeds will always produce cornstalks, and an ear of corn, and eventually corn itself. If I have two dove eggs, what will they become? Will they not become doves, almost identical to their parents?
Now the seed may never get planted, but if the seed does, it may not grow. The eggs may not hatch, but if they do hatch, they will continue to grow, and they will become exactly like their parents. The eventual course of the seeds and the eggs are set. They will become just like that which gave them life.
What about you? Who are you and what will you become? You are a son or a daughter, and you will become exactly like your parents. If we were noting this, we would say, "A seed becomes a plant, becomes a stalk of corn, becomes an ear of corn. An egg becomes a hatchling, an adult dove, and then eggs again." In the language of math, would we not write this as N1, N2, N3 ? N to the infinity. Would we not write it, "Son or daughter, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents ?" Eternal parents. What you become is not up to you. It is set. The only choice you have is to stop the progress. But if you continue to progress, your destination is assured.
One last story about choice. Years ago, Elder Marion D. Hanks, while an assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve, spoke of a story about someone and his or her opportunity to learn. The story is about Louis Agassiz, a distinguished naturalist of the 19th century, who was approached by an obscure spinster, who insisted that she had never had a chance to learn. In his response, Dr. Agassiz, asked her to consider the chances that she already had:
" 'What do you do?' he asked.
" 'I skin potatoes and chop onions.'
"He said, 'Madam, where do you sit during these interesting but homely duties?'
" 'On the bottom step of the kitchen stairs,' she replied.
" 'Where do your feet rest?' [he asked.]
" 'On glazed brick.'
" 'What is glazed brick?'
" 'I don't know, sir.'
"He said, 'How long have you been sitting there?'
" 'Fifteen years.'
" 'Madame, here is my personal card,' said Dr. Agassiz. '[If you will] kindly write me a letter concerning the nature of a glazed brick.'
"The woman took the challenge seriously. She read all that she could find on brick and tile and then [sent it to Dr. Agassiz in a 36-page letter].
"Back came [a reply from the doctor]: 'Dear Madam, this is the best article I have ever seen on the subject. If you will kindly change the three words [that I have] marked with asterisks, I will have it published and pay you for it.'
"A short time later, there came a letter [with a $250 check], and penciled on the bottom of this letter was this query: 'What is under those bricks?' She had learned the value of time and answered with a single word: 'Ants.'
" 'Tell me about the ants.'
"After wide reading, much microscopic work, and deep study, the spinster sat down and wrote Dr. Agassiz 360 pages on the subject. He published the book and sent her the money, and she went to visit all of the lands of her dreams on the proceeds of her work." ("Good Teachers Matter, Ensign, July 1971, 61-62; quoted in Jay E. Jensen, "The Power of Diligent Learning," Ensign, September 2008)
In ancient times, building work was overseen by guilds. The guildmasters were the ones who saw to it that the integrity of the craft over which they labored was the best it could possibly be. If you wanted to enter the guild, you had to begin as an apprentice and dedicate long years with little or no pay. Sounds like school. The master under whom you labored gave you room and board and your tools. Eventually you became a journeyman in the guild and you got paid. However, if you wanted to become a master of the guild, you had to present a sample of your work to be judged by the other masters. It had to be a work of outstanding beauty and flawless quality, for it was the work by which your skills would be judged. It had to be a work that would weather the ages. It was appropriately called "a masterpiece."
As you go to school, as you plan to live your lives, as you begin to learn to solve problems, know that you have abilities beyond your present understanding. However, to unlock these capabilities, you must learn to go beyond what you now think is possible. You must become very good at doing difficult things.
When President John F. Kennedy challenged the United States to commit itself to putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth, these are the words he used to describe that task: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard . . . "
I challenge you to do hard things. I challenge you, each of you here today, to go beyond what you now think is possible, to go beyond existing boundaries and chart new territory. I challenge each of you to go beyond what is expected of you. If you are given an assignment, make it a masterpiece. Do not be content with anything less than your very best work. Give up those things that have little or no value. When studying a topic, read more than is assigned. Find your own sources. Learn at an accelerated rate.
I challenge each of you to read more, to study more, and to learn more. Read a book a week. Read the Book of Mormon, not just once a year, but once a month. Learn how to do the impossible and do it constantly. Your future is bright, your future is secure, if you will make excellence a habit and not just a singular event.
My brothers and sisters, I express my love to you. I love working with you, I love being among you. You inspire me. Never underestimate the power of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Never lose sight of Him or His gospel. Have confidence in your ability to solve each and every problem under His watchful care. He will never let you down. He is the Master of the universe, the Creator, and our Savior. He understands our grief, He understands how to succor His people, for He has borne our sins and is acquainted with sorrow. He is also the giver of all good gifts, and gifts of goodness He will give you. In Him we can have, and must have, complete confidence. And of this I testify, in the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.