Joy in the Journey, Joy in the Process
And thus they were driven forth, three hundred and forty and four days upon the water....And they did sing praises unto the Lord; yea, the brother of Jared did sing praises unto the Lord, and he did thank and praise the Lord all the day long; and when the night came, they did not cease to praise the Lord. -- Ether 6:11, 9
The Problem with Goals
The scripture found in Doctrine and Covenants 14:7 is not only one of God’s most spectacular promises, it is also evidence of the value of setting goals.
And, if you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God.
In spite of this and other scriptural passages along with Latter-Day apostolic writings extolling the virtue of goals, I have often questioned their value. Living the life of an addict, where promise after promise is made and then broken, trying to set goals can really be a downer. It’s easy to think of them as useless and counterproductive.
Yet, each time I have tried to take the anti-goal position, I only to talk myself back into the value of goals. I do believe in them. But within this belief, I think there is something often missed in the concept of setting goals.
I have thought about this as I listen to others frustrated by their own lack of achievement. I know many who feel a failure in their efforts in spite of being diligent in doing the right things. I know others who have abandon even trying because they feel they will just not be able to achieve any desirable end result.
Couch to 5k
I have a goal. I am in the process of trying to get myself into better physical shape through running. I have a goal and a plan to reach a 5K run in an eight month period. It’s not spectacular goal and it’s also a long time to get there. I haven’t taken off in a lightning fast way. I started by getting used to walking. I walked to my work and back, a distance of 1.5 miles each way, for two months. I needed to get conditioned to the feeling of stress on my feet without causing injury to them or my legs and knees. There comes an age where doing too much too fast is just dangerous. I am nearing that age.
Besides, I have tried things like this before only to abandon them. I start off great, but then sort of lose my stride. I get distracted; I put the exercise off for another priority, never to return. The list of reasons why I quit is long and unoriginal.
The Oft Missed Ingredient
However, going through the addiction recovery process has opened up new perspectives and realizations. One realization is that I was always focused on the end result. It seems reasonable; I started for the end result. Isn’t that why I set the goal? Perhaps, but if the only focus is the end result and some idyllic view of happiness upon reaching it, we miss a great truth about goals. It’s a truth I missed for many years. That truth is that it’s not so much the goal that matters as it is the process of achieving that goal. Perhaps that sounds like double-talk, but I am convinced that the plan for this life is as much about process as it is the end result.
Consider a person going skiing. He gets all dressed up and drives to the mountains. He buys a lift ticket and then gets to the top. What would happen if he got to the top of the lift and we just shoved him into a helicopter and dropped him off at the bottom? Would he be pleased? He reached his goal, after all. He wanted to get to the bottom and we got him there. But the skier doesn’t want to just reach the bottom of the hill. He wants to go through the process of getting to the bottom of the hill.
The goal itself is valuable. But if the only value is the goal we not only miss the point, we end up frustrated. We get frustrated by the difficulty in achieving the goal. Disappointments early on can challenge our belief and cause us to give up. On the other hand the goal itself may become so important that the achieving it at any cost results in damage exceeding the value from reaching the goal.
The goal may require others to behave in a way that they choose not to behave, just ask any missionary or mother of a disobedient child. We may seek the goal believing that its achievement will bring some increased happiness only to find it didn’t. It may be that the process of achieving the goal has brought us greater capacity for joy only we don’t see it as we focused only on the goal as the source of joy.
What if you had a goal of achieving great wealth and then the next day you won the Powerball Lottery? Did you achieve your goal? I understand that you wanted wealth and now you have it, but did you achieve it? What did you lose by reaching your goal without going through the process? There are many sad examples of this exact thing happening.
The Process is to reach the End. The End is the Process.
For me, getting used to putting my feet on pavement was a first step. It was a small goal in itself. I derived no measurable achievement doing this. It would have been so easy to think this is ridiculous and that I will never get to this goal. That would have resulted in a feeling of futility and ultimately justified my abandonment. But I thought about what I have learned in my recovery process. I learned that I am in this for the long term. I learned that I am not here just for the end results. I am here for the whole journey. When I started, my only real goal was to create a habit. In short, my goal was to begin my process.
LDS theology has a number of stories that really illustrate the value of the process. My personal favorite is Lehi’s sons getting the brass plates. These are four young, naïve men, trying to take on a wicked and cunning man of the world. In a battle of their wits, Laban is older, smarter, and much more practiced and getting the best of the other party. He will not be persuaded, he will not be bought. He will counter on any perceived threat and he will plunder whenever he senses weakness.
Lehi’s sons are outmatched. The result is a complete fiasco of failed persuasions false accusations, and an embarrassing loss of all their wealth. It’s really sad at first. Then after you have read the story enough times, it morphs into comical.
Yes, the story is inspirational and I love Nephi’s faith. My favorite line in this whole telling is when Nephi went on his own a third time saying “I was led by the spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.” This is an absolute showing of faith. But it is also about the only option Nephi has apart from giving up. They had exhausted their resources and ideas and all had failed. Nephi either had to give up and go home empty handed or walk out on pure faith.
The result was a successful venture that would be the source for 600 years of preparation for the coming of the Savior.
In spite of the resulting success in the mission to obtain the plates, I have asked myself many times, why this path to get the plates? Why send the sons and not the father who would have been more persuasive and wise? Why leave Jerusalem first and then go back to get the plates? Why not devise a plan to take the plates on the way out? I am sure God could have delayed their enemies for a bit. I am positive he could have put the plates in their belongings as they fled just as he placed the Liahona outside Lehi’s tent. Why does the path in recorded in 1 Nephi 3 and 4 become the path?
I ask similar questions when they get sent back to pick up Ishmael and his sons and maiden daughters. I believe the why question in these stories is worth pondering. I also think the answers eluded me when I focused only on the end result. It now seems to clear to me that the Lord wanted more than the plates or the brides. He wanted the sons of Lehi to go through the process of getting them.
Consider Nephi, the youngest of the four brothers living in a time of strict patriarchal hierarchies. The oldest, Laman, is a malcontent and disobedient. He has the birthright of the firstborn and the natural role of the family leader. However, Nephi has been told very early on that he will be the leader of the people (see 1 Nephi, Chapter 2). This will not be easy. Laman will not give up his birthright. Nephi must learn how to stand up to his brothers without his father’s intervention.
As the oldest, Laman held the authority of his father. When he failed to get the plates, he could have insisted they give up and the others would have felt to follow him as the leader. So the youngest stepping up and saying not till they have accomplished the Lord’s commandments is by itself a bold move, probably a mutinous one in Laman’s view. When Nephi’s plan fails, Laman doesn’t hesitate to put Nephi back in his place by brute force and risk of death. Only an angel of God chastising Laman and is enough to stop him.
In accomplishing this mission, Nephi learns the following:
- How to stand up to his older brothers (Excepting Sam).
- How dangerous his brothers can be (Excepting Sam).
- How to act on faith and inspiration even if the task is horrifying.
- How to trust in God’s protection.
- How to not give up even when facing futility.
It was a type of leadership bootcamp that would set Nephi’s mind and heart firm when it came to missions of faith. It was always more than the goal. It was also about what Nephi would become as a result of pursuing the goal.
The Other School of the Prophets
In our church history we see Zion’s Camp as another example. This one is interesting because they never met their objective. Pride and contention amongst the camp ultimately proved them unprepared for the type of redemption the Lord had in mind. It is easy to see the process as a total failure. It is also easy to see the explanation as a cop-out if all one thinks of the goal as the only source of value. But if we see the process as equally important, then we know that Zion’s camp did fill an objective. Much of the future leadership of the church had their roots in Zion’s camp. The participants, like Nephi, were schooled in a way that a classroom desk just cannot duplicate.
The LDS pioneers crossing the plains purged their dross and proved their metal as they endured the long trek. Even greater faith was needed to stop in the Salt Lake Valley and settle there. Through all of this, a people willing to work to keep their religion alive and their faith strong have been the bedrock of the devotion of this church.
Acquisition vs. Eradication
I think this concept of understanding the process is often better practiced with acquisition goals, that is, goals for acquiring something. Athletic medals, academic awards, Duty to God/Youg Women’s Recognition, mission calls, missionary baptisms, temple recommends, temple marriages, etc. all are acquisition based. Eradication goals, goals designed to remove something we dislike in us, are more challenging. I think this is because it is easier to grasp the idea that there are benefits in pursuing a worthwhile acquisition goal. Even if the goal takes time and effort, even if we don’t quite reach it, we still might realize the value of it’s pursuit.
Eradication goals on the other hand come with a feeling of desperation and desire for immediacy. We want the ugliness in us removed. It causes us sorrow, pain and self-loathing and we want it gone as now. Every time we fail to completely remove it, we add frustration to our pain. Addicts feel this all the time. We look for the magic formula or the perfect scripture or talk to turn us around with the same immediacy of Alma the Younger. What many must understand is that, like acquisition goals, eradication goals also have a process. The Process includes learning to trust and lean on the Lord, something most of us have never understood. The process includes confessions and reparations and learning humility. It is not an overnight achievement. It is not a matter of patching a hole in a road, but rather rebuilding completely new routes designed to keep us near the Lord. It is not a helicopter ride to the bottom of the hill. It is a process of getting there that matters the most.
Conclusion and Commencement
If the process is to reach the end, then one must also understand the end is the process. This realization is not new; it is ancient. It was stated much in much more clear terms and a with a greater spirit by the Apostle James:
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?...Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works (James 14:17-18).