Editor’s Note: This is the second of a five-part series that will teach LDS students how to study and learn – from a spiritual perspective. Read the introductory article here.
4. The Value of Experience
All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. (D&C 122:7)
As important as they are, books are not the only source of knowledge available to us. Experience is a great teacher, as any adult can attest. The prophet Joseph Smith said, “Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject” (History of the Church 6:50).
The Lord indicated to the prophet that even times of great tribulations serve to give one experience that can turn to good (D&C 122:5-7). Jesus himself “descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things” (D&C 88:6). When we find life’s experiences unpleasant, we must consider the Lord’s question: “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:8).
The Quality of Experiences
Some of life’s experiences are totally beyond our control. Often, they cause us pain. It is not so much the experience itself that determines what we shall become but, rather, how we react to it. Because mortal life is a time of trial, temptation is a part of our everyday life. Satan’s entire energies are directed toward enticing us to do wrong. So great is his rule in the earth that the scriptures call him the “prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) and the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
Indeed, because Satan’s enticement is so prevalent, we must make special efforts to seek the enticing of the Spirit of God in what the apostle Paul called “this present evil world” (Galatians 1:4). We do this by seeking wholesome and spiritual experiences.
The kinds of experiences we have determine in large part what we learn and what direction our lives will take. It is therefore extremely important that we be selective in the types of experiences to which we deliberately expose ourselves. Some could prove very heart-breaking in later life. Our best guide in this matter is the thirteenth Article of Faith: “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”
Range of Experiences
It is advisable to expose oneself to a wide range of good experiences. For my part, I found great satisfaction in such activities as school clubs and teams, the ROTC, Civil Air Patrol, Ground Observer Corps, Civil Defense, Model United Nations, and Church and seminary activities. Scouting and employment are also useful activities for young people. A variety of jobs early in life will give the possibility of more intelligent decisions regarding one’s ultimate occupation. I have myself worked in a warehouse, for the police department, as a microfilmer, an export clerk, a volunteer firefighter, a guide, a teacher, a translator, a technical writer, a secretary, an administrative assistant, a purchasing clerk, an editor, coordinator of a professional society, manager of marketing communications and public affairs, project manager, and associate research director.
It is unlikely that any one person can be at the top in each of his or her endeavors. But exposure to them and to the kinds of people who participate in them is the most important thing. We have much to teach one another (D&C 88:77, 122). It is important to remember that every human being has some talents and knowledge that we do not possess, and vice-versa.
After high school, there are other activities available at universities, in technical colleges, in military service, in the Peace Corps or other volunteer programs and in employment. I enjoyed the service and personal development that came from a two-year stake mission immediately after high school, followed by a full-time mission in France and Switzerland. No able young Latter-day Saint should plan a future without a mission, and it is now possible for those with disabilities to serve in one way or another.
Many will have the opportunity to serve a mission outside their native lands. For those who do not travel abroad during the mission, it is advisable, where possible, to seek exposure to foreign countries and cultures. One of the best ways to do this is through semester-abroad programs and study-tours such as those conducted by Brigham Young University. Even if you are unable to travel abroad, do not miss the opportunity to learn at least one foreign language, as the Lord himself has recommended (D&C 90:15). It will broaden your mind and introduce you to new ways of thinking. It will even give you insights into your own native tongue. Ideally, one should have an early start in foreign languages, in junior high school or high school – or even earlier when possible.
While engaging in activities such as those already listed, it would be well to participate in games that will assist you to develop your reasoning abilities, such as chess, scrabble, puzzles, quiz- and dictionary- (vocabulary-building) types, including trivia games. Many of your fun-time activities can be great learning experiences. Most sports call for the use of strategy in addition to exercising the muscles.
Physical fitness is a part of mental fitness. Proper diet, exercise and sleep contribute to an alert mind (D&C 88:124). The worst thing you can do for your body and mind is to use any kind of drugs, including alcohol, tobacco and coffee and tea (D&C 89). Claims of “mind expansion” for drugs are literally an illusion – hallucinations having no value or connection to the real world in which we must live from day to day.
I have found over the years that cramming is no solution to learning problems. I not only strongly advise against it, but I also condemn any claims that all-night no-sleep sessions – with or without “stay awake” drugs – are useful. I’ll pit my program of regular study, healthful living, and a good night’s sleep against anything else you can find.
It has been said that “a wise man seldom changes his mind; a fool, never.” What this statement ignores is the fact that few if any of us are truly wise. We all make mistakes and must not only change our minds, but oftentimes our actions as well. In no other organization in the world is this principle more taught and understood than in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We know it as the principle of repentance. The Hebrew term rendered “repent” in the Bible literally means “to return” and implies a change of mind, of attitude, and of actions.
Only the fool never changes his ways. The more wise we become in mortality, the more need for change we see. Wisdom, however, is not a mere accumulation of knowledge (indeed, only an unwise person believes that he “knows it all”). Rather, it is the ability to make proper use of knowledge and to improve our lot and that of others. It is a gift from God and is best obtained by faith and prayer (1 Kings 3:5-12, 28; 4:29). That is why the principle of faith always precedes that of repentance.
We can literally “thank heaven” for the ability to change and the agency that allows it. These are some of our most priceless possessions, and it behooves us to use them to our best advantage.
The Value of Goals
If we are to achieve long-range goals, we must learn to set up and accomplish short-range goals that will move us along the way.
If we do not consciously select our goals, we may be controlled by goals not of our own choosing – goals imposed by outside pressures (such as the expectations of others) or by our habits (such as procrastination) or by our desire for the approval of the world. (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 384)
There are a number of things that can guide us in setting up a good study program. For example, a patriarchal blessing or a father’s blessing can tell us what the Lord expects of us. While these are overall guidelines, more specific assistance is available from vocational counselors and other professionals, as well as bishops and other Church leaders. But perhaps the most important procedure for decision-making is the one outlined by the Lord to Oliver Cowdery:
But behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it be right, I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong. (D&C 9:8-9)
While employing this test, we should be cautious not to conclude that there is always only one right way and that all others are wrong. The opposite may sometimes be true as well: there may be many good things to do in a given set of circumstances. I am reminded of stories about the returned missionary who told his favorite girl that he had applied this test and had learned that she was the one he should marry. But the girl did not accept his proposal and he ultimately found another “right one.” I believe that the Lord had merely told him that the young woman was suitable for him – not that she was the only possibility.
How to Attain Goals
One of the best ways to attain a goal is to set a time limit. There should also be evaluation times before the end of that limit, in order that we might determine where we stand. Some goals, of course, take a considerable length of time for their achievement. Of these, Elder Neal A. Maxwell has said:
The direction in which we are moving is more important than the position or place … We may be behind, but we are not losing if we are moving in the right direction. (Conference Reports, October 1974, p. 56)
It is certain that we can never attain a goal if we take too many side trips. And, when the goal is of the type that cannot be reached in a short period of time, we must avoid the pitfalls of discouragement by constant reevaluation of both the goal and our position in relation thereto.
Experiences & Goals
Following such general and specific guidelines as those discussed earlier will enable us to set goals. It is very important to establish goals, even though they may change. There should be both long-range and short-range goals, and both should be re-evaluated from time to time based upon our progress.
Every step in life leads to more than a single pathway, and hence we must be prepared to make new decisions at each crossroad. Often, there are new uses for talents we have acquired that were unforeseen when the goals were originally set. My study of French, for example, led me to serve a French-speaking mission and afterward provided an income through translation and tutoring while I studied other subjects more pertinent to my ultimate goals in life. My typing abilities have, on numerous occasions, provided an income while working toward academic goals and ultimately led to a managerial position with a major company that I now see as merely a stepping-stone to other possibilities.
My study of anthropology not only provided me with the opportunity to teach in that field, but also introduced me to the related areas of archaeology and linguistics, in which I have also taught. While archaeology led me to study history and geography, linguistics led me to the study of languages. By concentrating in the Near East in most of these areas, I was able to become knowledgeable somewhat in virtually all aspects of the ancient Near Eastern world, with specialization in some few subjects.
I believe that a student should be cautious to not become too over-specialized. Not only does it make for a more difficult task in finding a slot in the job market, but it also puts blinders on the individual. It prevents him from seeing the rest of the world around him and from appreciating the wealth of knowledge available from other fields.
One of my teachers, the world-renowned Egyptian Professor Aziz Atiya, once counseled, “Before you decide in which clearing or grove of trees you wish to have your picnic, fly over the entire forest to get an idea of what it looks like.” Without such a broad perspective, it is often impossible to “see the forest for the trees.” A perusal of the great names in any field will reveal that most of the real achievers in life are people who have been multi-talented generalists or individuals with a varied background. A man with his fingers in many pies will have more basis on which to compare flavors than Little Jack Horner sitting in the corner with his single plum tart. The greatest discoveries are made by people who can bridge the gap between various fields (usually related) and draw upon information therefrom.
Among Latter-day Saints, there are a number of scholars who have been successful researchers precisely because they have become the proverbial “jack of all trades.” I believe that their inspiration derives from the instructions of the Lord to the priesthood of the Church:
Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and kingdoms – that ye may be prepared in all things. (D&C 88:78-80)
It is said that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” But what about a whole lot of knowledge? It is likely that the student who remains open-minded and inquisitive will win out over the one who merely parrots what he has been taught. To accept everything that one reads or hears is not only gullible, but dangerous. The human mind is not infallible and we cannot expect that teachers and authors always give (or even know) the truth. However, following the late Alvin R. Dyer’s example, I should like to distinguish between the “questioning” and the “inquiring” mind. There is no need to cast doubt on everything (and particularly when it comes to the revealed word of God) by “questioning” all. But it is legitimate to inquire as to the true nature of the matter and its application to us.