Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Picking up color

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Sunday Morning Session from the April 1975 Conference.
I think I've always been impressionable. I find myself inadvertently imitating the style and tone of whatever writer I'm reading at a given time, or humming whatever music I've been in the vicinity of. Worst of all, I mirror people's facial expressions. I had several teachers throughout school who would comment on it. Some of them said they were unnerved by it; they thought I was making fun of them before realizing it was entirely unconscious on my part. Others said they would glance at my expression to make sure they weren't looking too grumpy that day. The teachers that were smiley and happy seemed to always like having me near the front so they could gaze upon my smiley happy mirror-face. One teacher in junior high (she glared a lot) asked me one day why I was always glaring up at her during her lectures and I had to stammer out some apology and then be VERY CONSCIOUS of putting a pleasant look on my face thereafter. And there was a frowning tour guide in London who singled me out of our group to ask what I kept frowning about.

I think one of the most important things I learned (and have probably written about before) from my poetry teacher Lance Larsen at BYU was that ALL OF US are impressionable. People like to think they aren't. Sometimes aspiring poets would come to him proud of how original and "untainted" they were. "Who are you reading?" he'd ask them, and they'd reply, "I don't read other poetry because I want my own work to sound fresh!" He'd sigh and point out that, lacking the deliberate influence of someone competent, they were instead being influenced by all the drivel they WEREN'T seeking out: advertising jingles, 'poems' in sacrament meeting about footprints and the old violin, angsty pop music. And it showed in their work.

I had a composition teacher tell me much the same thing about music composition. "Students think a melodic idea is good just because it was the first one that came to them," he said. "The opposite is more likely to be true, and unless their musical influences are very deliberate, they're more likely to have bad instincts than good. The crafting of good music is usually more conscious than intuitive."

I was much struck by these comments, and I determined on the spot to make sure I was choosing my artistic influences actively instead of passively! I don't know if I do very well at it. But I do have much less patience for reading sloppy or incoherent prose these days! I used to finish a book just because I'd started it. No more! My free time is too rare to waste any of it reading garbage. But, of course, I know there are many other things influencing me without my even knowing it. It takes a lot of effort to seek out excellent movies to watch, and I'm often feeble and lazy about that. I frequently opt for silence rather than music, which means all I'm mostly hearing is my kids' piano practicing or whatever's playing at the grocery store (hardly a nourishing musical diet…luckily I'm not composing much these days either).

But Elder J. Thomas Fyans' talk in this week's General Conference session made me think again about what influences are coloring my worldview. I loved the metaphor he used, drawn from tributaries of the Amazon River:
One interesting feature about these rivers is their different colors. The Madeira, for example, is called a white river because its waters carry fine clay particles along its course. The black color of the Rio Negro comes from decaying organic materials picked up in the forests through which it passes. Still other rivers flow over white sands and often appear emerald green or turquoise blue. 
Just as these rivers are colored by the substances picked up as they flow along, so the streams of our thoughts are colored by the material through which they are channeled. The scriptures indicate that as a man “thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Prov. 23:7.) The material we read has a great effect on the nature of our thoughts. We therefore need to be concerned not only with avoiding unwholesome literature, but we must fill our minds with pure knowledge, and we must see that our children do the same.
This made me think about how much I am influenced by living in the stream of modern culture. It's not just specific ideas I'm likely to be wrong about, but even the WAY I'm thinking: what I consider important in life, what I think I'm entitled to, what I see as admirable. When are my thoughts taking their color from the world's view of motherhood, or marriage, or what a happy life and home and family should look like—and when are they taking their color from God's view of those things? How often does my discontent or my impatience or my resistance to something come from an influence I never even knew I was choosing, but which is affecting me all the same? 

Elder Fyans then goes on to talk about how the scriptures and the words of modern prophets are some of the best words to deliberately color our minds with. He quotes President Kimball's statement that 
[When we get] casual in our relationships with [God] and when it seems that no divine ear is listening and no divine voice is speaking, [we are] far, far away. If [we will] immerse [ourselves] in the scriptures, the distance narrows and the spirituality returns.
Then Elder Fyans continues:
Through our scripture study we will come to consider [the] great leaders of the scriptures as our personal friends, and their messages will take on new and added meaning. We will learn that people of days gone by were not so different from people we know today.
I've found this to be absolutely true in my own life. It is becoming more true even now as I read these old Conference talks and learn to know more of their voices! But there is even more reason to let our minds run over the words of God:
Now, if I may, I would like to return to the analogy of the rivers. Some rivers are sluggish and meander through low places. Their waters are dirty and full of debris. These do not furnish the electricity that brightens our cities and serves our many needs. 
Other rivers flow down from the high places, tributaries adding to their volume as they flow. Their current is strong, and as a result these furnish electricity for our needs and great ships sail upon them carrying the products of man’s labor.
This is what the words of God can do in our lives! Cleanse us, nourish us, even power us! I especially liked the idea that even if I don't do as well as I'd like at finding time to fill my mind with great ideas, with great music and poetry and literature…the scriptures contain all of those things! And they are all of those things to my mind, because they will bring the spirit into my life. Immersing myself in them, as often and as deeply as I can, will bring all the reward I could wish for.
Where do the streams of our thoughts flow? Are we reading the scriptures? Are we listening to the counsel of our present-day prophet? Are we catching the vision of really living the gospel? Are we feeling the sense of urgency—an urgency to repent, to share the gospel, to prepare for the second coming of the Savior, to obey all God’s commandments?
Being conscious about my influences is a goal I made in college, but it's one I could stand to revisit for more than academic reasons. I've always felt a bit sheepish about my facial-mirroring habit, and I've tried to dial it back a bit so I don't embarrass myself! But what's even more alarming is to think of all the times I'm mirroring the thoughts and priorities of people I don't even WANT to imitate. I would so much rather choose to be  colored and influenced by One who will always teach me goodness and truth: Jesus Christ! And I can do this by keeping His influences all about me. Elder Fyons' concluding question makes me resolve to do better: 
As we read the scriptures, our thoughts are lifted heavenward by the counsel of the prophets… 
Why not color your thoughts with eternal, prophetic utterances and truths this very day?


Other posts in this series:

1 comment:

  1. This was so good for me to read! Because of course on some level I purposefully choose to put good things in and to avoid bad, but I hadn't really formed a conscious thought about what might be passively influencing me and about how actively I must choose my influences!!

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