Power in the ideal

During my reading this week, the first thing I noticed was the statement "there is tremendous power in focusing upon an ideal." It kept going through my head and demanding that I consider it. So I'm going to take the unconventional step of talking for a while about how I DIDN'T quite like this statement at first. Ha! But then I'll get to how I do believe it, so don't stop reading halfway through. :)

Actually, when I read that line in Franklin D. Richards' talk ("Thy Will be Done, O Lord") my first thought was to remember that Elder Oaks or someone once talked about how the "official church" always has to teach ideals and not exceptions, even though there may BE exceptions.1And that concept makes sense to me. An organization has to set standards or it becomes meaningless. But in this talk, Elder Richards didn't say power came from "SETTING FORTH an ideal," —but from "FOCUSING ON" an ideal, which sounds a lot more internal and personal. And that seemed a little surprising to me. I think I've gotten used to the widely-accepted idea that we should set goals that are attainable and not beat ourselves up about our faults and so forth. Along with that is the unspoken assumption that you shouldn't aim for an ideal you have no hope of reaching; that you should be "realistic." Focusing on an ideal—something like, "I need to have an ideal marriage!"—seems like it would make us not only more discouraged when we fall short, but also make us less content with and appreciative of what we have.

Along those same lines, I've been thinking lately how comparing life to some (imaginary) ideal is completely counterproductive. Especially while I've been teaching an Economics and Money Unit to the children, it's been on my mind that most choices in life involve trade-offs. I forget that so easily! When I'm discontented about something, I tend to compare it with an imaginary ideal—"If only I didn't have any kids, I'd have so much free time to think and write and accomplish things!", for example. But of course, what I don't think about is how if I didn't have kids, I wouldn't just be sitting around enjoying life and doing amazing feats. I'd have all the same limitations on my time and energy, just caused by different things. Maybe I'd be unmarried and having to go to work to support myself. Maybe I'd be dealing with loneliness and trying to force myself to date even though it seemed like a waste of time. Maybe I would be married but so consumed with wishing I DID have kids that I wouldn't feel like writing or even thinking about it most of the time. Maybe I'd be limited by a health problem. Not that any of those wouldn't be a worthwhile life, and I would undoubtedly have different sources of enjoyment and challenge, but there's nothing to be gained by me thinking dreamily about a life of no responsibilities and unlimited time. No one lives that ideal.

The same could be said about so many political and economic ideals. If you talk to me very often you know I'm always going on about this (much of which I learned reading Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell). There's such danger in sweeping, seemingly uncontroversial statements like "if it saves even one life, it's worth whatever it costs." Or "the safety of our children is our number one priority." But talking about ideals and priorities often lets one ignore the fact that in real life, incremental tradeoffs are inevitable and necessary! Of course no one wants their children to be "unsafe," but if this was truly our number one priority, we would never let them drive anywhere in a car or even leave the house. And a life of such isolation and inactivity would have its own risks, mental and physical! Much better to acknowledge tradeoffs and realities when making decisions; asking questions like "Compared to what?" and "At what cost?" 

So all those thoughts were going through my head as I read "there is tremendous power on focusing on an ideal." I thought—"IS there? Really?"

But as I've thought more about it, I think there are a few differences between the kind of "focusing on an ideal" I was talking about in the last few paragraphs, and what Elder Richards means here. For one thing, the church helps us learn to focus on TRUE ideals. So my imaginary ideal of "life without inconvenience and trouble," the life I sometimes compare my own to and feel unhappy—a life where I never have to worry about money, and I don't have to deal with children arguing, and I have the time to do all the things I want to do—is not truly an "ideal." It's more like a fantasy. I know that in a truly "ideal" world, I WOULD still have some of those trials, because they teach me patience or gratitude or thriftiness or whatever. God DOES want me to have opposition in my life and it IS part of his ideal for me, at least for now.

Okay, but what about something that IS a true ideal, even in God's eyes? Something more like, "An ideal mother would never be angry with her children." Isn't focusing on that too discouraging? Isn't that just going to make me feel like a failure all the time, since I know I'll never attain perfection in this life? If I'm always thinking of an "an ideal family" isn't it going to make me ungrateful for the one I have? And isn't any small progress I do make toward that ideal going to seem meaningless, since it inevitably falls short?

Well, I don't know. I know that God never wants us to feel overwhelmed with our weakness. But he does want us to see it. And he does want us to be humble and know we need him. And maybe I am being too limiting when I assume "I will never reach the ideal of 'never being angry'." (For some great thoughts on that, read this post.)

But I think the best way for me to understand this statement comes when I read on a little farther. Here's the rest of Elder Richards' paragraph:
"There is tremendous power in focusing upon an ideal. People are inclined to become like those whom they admire. As we increase our knowledge and love of the Savior and indicate our willingness to do his will, we necessarily become more perfect and like him."
It strikes me that focusing on CHRIST is the very definition of focusing on "an ideal." Maybe even "THE ideal." And as Elder Richards implies here, ANY effort to focus to Christ will ALWAYS lead us to more improvement and more happiness. Maybe it's because as we get to know Him, we will feel more gratitude for what He's done for us, and that will lead us AWAY from the "if only my life were better" thinking that can be so depressing. Even a hardship will be put into perspective as the gift that it is, and we'll just be grateful for what we have. And focusing on Christ will also lead us away from discouragement. It seems paradoxical because He's SO good and SO perfect, how could we ever be happy when we're comparing ourselves with Him? I don't know why. Maybe it's because it gives us hope to see that someone actually did live the ideal—the true Godly ideal. Or maybe it's because part of His perfection is His compassion and gentleness and optimism. His spirit always makes us feel hope instead of despair. Or maybe it's because if we learn about Christ we have to learn about the atonement, and the atonement is the thing that allows us to change our very natures and gives us hope of actually, truly being able to reach the ideal ourselves someday!

And that's the other key to understanding this statement, I think. If we didn't believe we could literally become changed through Christ, there might NOT be tremendous power in focusing on an ideal. But we know from the Book of Mormon that it really is possible to be changed in our very natures. To actually have no desire to do evil. To be "new creatures," made new in Christ. And since we really believe this ideal as TRUTH (not a fantasy world created from wishful thinking), then focusing on that fact can only help us. I think it's probably a spiritual gift as well; that is, if we want to actually gain the "tremendous power" Elder Richards promises from focusing on an ideal, we probably have to have the Holy Ghost aiding us—enhancing our thoughts and faculties, feeding us enabling power, sanctifying us and enlarging us. With the Holy Spirit present, we probably would be always full of resolve instead of discouragement when we fall short. And I have felt this before. Sometimes I feel limp and weak and hopeless when I think about how I want to be "the ideal mother" or "the ideal wife"2 or "the ideal daughter" and I'm just NOT. But those aren't times when I'm full of the spirit. When I'm feeling closest to God, I usually feel peaceful and at the same time, I don't know, sort of determined. Hopeful. Like, "with God's help, I bet I can do this. In fact with Him, what CAN'T I do?" And I'm also so much more likely to feel "it will all work out." I do worry about all the ways I have messed up my children and all the ways relationships can be damaged and go wrong—but I (when I'm at my best) also have to think, "God is watching over us all. He loves us all. He will give us all the experiences we need and allow us every opportunity possible to choose Him." And in that way, the more I focus on the ideal (i.e. Jesus Christ) the MORE hope I'll feel—because I'll know how much he loves his children. Including me.

For the rest of the talk, Elder Richards discusses how the ideal of "thy will be done" leads us to ultimate happiness and peace. He mentions doing our church callings joyfully, whatever they are. Elder Richards says callings can always be "properly construed to be the will of the Lord," and asks "Why should we consider it a sacrifice to enjoy such happiness, growth, and development?" Great reminder to me. We're abundantly compensated for the time and effort our callings take.

Another phrase that stuck out: "As we live in this type of environment [an environment where we are continually studying God's word and praying always], we will know God’s will and have the desire and courage to conform." That's not a phrase one hears often, but it makes sense that much of the pain of comparing ourselves to an ideal comes from not really wanting to work to change ourselves enough to become ideal. But we can gain both the desire and the ability if we immerse ourselves in good things. Again—contemplation of Christ's perfection and the Father's goodness won't lead us to despair, but to empowerment. That's Elder Richards' promise here. I love it.

So, to sum up (since I always feel frustrated when my pondering doesn't result in some action items I can actually work on):
There is tremendous power in focusing on an ideal.
God's ideals are not my ideals.
Therefore, I need to focus not on what I, personally, imagine the ideal to be—but on Jesus Christ. On knowing Him, loving Him, and studying His life, His words, His commandments. That will both teach me what the ideal IS, and, as I apply the atonement, give me the spiritual capacity to work toward it without discouragement.

Other posts for this session:

1 Oh yeah. It was Elder Holland, here. Awesome talk.
2 All this talk of ideals is making me think of one of my favorite plays/movies, An Ideal Husband. It has some great thoughts on living an ideal too, although not exactly…these SAME thoughts. :)


  1. Marilyn, I loved your post. One thing I am finally growing to realize is that the "ideal" is more about our relationship with the Savior than our live's circumstance (whether we have created that circumstance or merely landed there). I have one young friend whose husband left the church a couple of years back. She is patient, faithful and good. Her marriage is happy and she shares that her husband is "her best friend." She faithfully brings some of the children to church (some choose to go with him) and she comes alone to ward temple night. She is a rock star in her calling. Her faith is ideal. Personally my husband and I have witnessed 4 of our 5 sweet children leave the church in the last few years and as we have grappled to hang onto our faith while looking for new ways to connect, love and admire those children. It is the best ideal for the circumstances we face. Once one lands in "painville" as my husband and I have, you tend to see much more keenly the courageous faith of those that live less than the happy Mormon family ideal. And their faith, love and optimism are courageous. Not the ideal I'd hoped for but the ideal I currently strive for.

    1. Wow Sandee, I love this powerful perspective. I, too, am having to learn and re-learn to calibrate my ideal to the Savior's, but that process can be, as you say, painful. It's so easy to lose sight of it when things disappoint you! But I have known so many people living the ideal amid the un-ideal, and they inspire me. It sounds like you are one of them! I love the way you said you're still trying to "connect and admire" your children in spite of the pain. That seems so sweet and nurturing to me, and I imagine that it makes so much difference in your relationship, for them to feel such security in your love. I hope I can do the same as my kids grow up and (inevitably) depart from my imagined "ideal" for them! I'm glad there are so many people setting examples of optimism in all situations, for both of us. :)

  2. I can only begin to mention how much I appreciate this post. This very concept of the "ideal" has been very misunderstood by myself. And you nailed it-- what I had been considering to be the "ideal" life for myself was basically fantasy. Instead of the "true ideal" that is true for me and my circumstances. I see a lot of people and homes and lifestyles that I might consider ideal, yet in a lot of ways they aren't realistic or true to maybe everyday life or my particular stage of life right now. It just seems ironic that in my great desire to follow Christ and be like Him, I have way too often been like the Pharisees and pretty much totally missed the mark on what is really best. I too often focused on the perfection aspect (in a letter-of-the-law/human perception of perfection--leading to much disappointment in myself), rather than the attributes of Christ that led Him to be perfect. The more I have come to know the Savior better, the more I understand how to truly be like Him. And my natural weaknesses and tendencies that get in the way-- He can help me with, if I let Him. And I can't help but always have a sigh of relief any time an amazing gal such as yourself says something like "I do worry about all the ways I have messed up my children..." because it's like, 'Wow! I worry about that too!' It's always nice to know one is not alone in struggles. :) Your concluding paragraph is perfect. <3

    1. Ha ha, I have felt uncomfortably like the Pharisees too. It's hard to find that balance between trying to obey "with exactness" and yet realizing that's not really the point—a wholesale change of heart is. Have you read Brad Wilcox's book "The continuous atonement"? I loved his piano lesson analogy, that we aren't trying to "pay God back" for our lessons, but instead to show our gratitude by becoming good musicians and loving music like He does.

      And yes, i do, often, think about what my children will be saying about me to their spouses or therapists… :)


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