The Message:

The Key to Learning

by Elder John H. Vandenberg

Assistant to the Council of the Twelve

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    Once there were two men—one whose name was Ef and the other whose name was Ez. This incident occurred some years ago in the back country where education was at a premium. Ef had a slate and a piece of chalk, and he was sitting under a tree in the shade on a warm day. As he was writing on this slate with his chalk, Ez sauntered up to him. Ef turned and said, “Look, Ez, I can write.” Ez was impressed. He replied, “That’s great. What does it say?” Ef answered, “I don’t know; I haven’t learned to read yet.”

    We think of our society as an enlightened society. This may be called the age of enlightenment, but did you know that over 700 million adults in the world cannot read or write? Four out of every ten adults in the world are illiterate.

    Those without the Opportunity

    Some years ago when I was in Mexico City, checking on some Church buildings as part of my assignment with the Church Building Department, one of the missionaries there asked, “Would you like to see the ruins of a previous civilization that are close by?” We gladly accepted the invitation. As we were returning along the highway, we saw a family working together making rope for sale. Having been in the livestock business, I was interested in their product. This family made rope from cactus fibers. They stripped the fibers from a species of long-spear cactus prevalent in Mexico and braided them into excellent rope. All of the family members were working, and I was concerned as I saw two young people who were of elementary school age. Through an interpreter, I asked these children, “Do you go to school?” They replied, “No, sir.” I said, “Why not?” They answered, “We don’t have the chance. There are no schools.” Then I asked them, “Would you like to go to school if you had the opportunity?” They replied, “Oh yes, sir.” They were sincere young people. Many people do not have the privilege of obtaining an education.

    In contrast to this, what do we do with the opportunities we have? I do not know whether or not you have ever stopped to consider this, but James Russell Lowell calls this thought to our attention:

    “Have you ever rightly considered what the mere ability to read means? That it is the key which admits us to the whole world of thought and fancy and imagination? To the company of saint and sage, of the wisest and the wittiest at their wisest and wittiest moments? That it enables us to see with the keenest eyes, hear with the finest ears, and listen to the sweetest voices of all time?”

    There are many redeeming factors, of course, in being literate. A hundred years ago English criminals could escape hanging by proving that they could read. Few people were literate at this time, especially those likely to run afoul of the law. If a man could successfully read the “neck-verse”—the first verse of Psalm 51, [Ps. 51:1] beginning, “Have mercy upon me, O God”—the court ruled that he was a clergyman and let him go with a slight punishment. (“Reading Through the Ages,” Wooden Barrel, Associated Cooperage Industries of America, Inc., 4–64.)

    The Sum Total of Life

    Maybe we can carry that a little further because literacy, true literacy, will save us. I wonder what would have happened to Joseph Smith had he not been literate enough to read the scriptures.

    “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5.)

    That scripture caused the reestablishment and the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ because in it was found the answer to the question, “Which church is right?” Have you thought about that?

    Of course, literacy goes far beyond what you read and write, for it is really the sum total of life. Full literacy will cause man to understand what life is all about.

    Several years ago at a convention of the National Association of Methodist Hospitals, Eugene M. Frank, a bishop of the Methodist church, stated in a keynote address:

    “A mark of faith is to know the meaning for existence. Professor Paul Tillich reminds us that three fears have gripped mankind. Before the Christian era it was the Fear of Death. During the middle ages, the Fear of Guilt. Today, it is the Fear of Meaninglessness. The mad search for escape, for Nirvana, for death itself, is the result. There is no joy, there is only fun. There is no peace, there is only aspirin. There is no hope, there is only alcohol or some other form of narcotic.”

    We have the gospel of Jesus Christ that gives us the full meaning of life. We understand that life is eternal, that it has been eternal. We understand that we must abide by certain laws to obtain what we call our first estate. Coming into this great world through the birth that was given to us by our mothers was a reward for what we had done previously. With that was given the understanding that if we kept our second estate, we should be added upon forever and ever. That is a simple statement, but we can gain a true understanding through the scriptures, the Spirit, and faith.

    Cherish Your Youth

    There was once a man by the name of Sir Walter Raleigh. I do not know what kind of man he was. History does not always record events correctly. But the words of some of these people give us insight into the kind of people they were because when they start to record things in writing for future generations, they give us their very best. This thought comes from Sir Walter Raleigh:

    “Bestow thy youth so that thou mayest have comfort to remember it, and when it hath forsaken thee, [do] not sigh and grieve at the account thereof. Whilst thou art young thou wilt think it will never end; but behold the longest day hath his evening, and thou shalt enjoy it but once; it never turns again; use it therefore as the springtime, which soon departeth, and wherein thou oughtest to plant and sow all provisions for a long and happy life.”

    I wish I had heard that when I was a youngster. I believe it might have given me thought to be a better boy.

    Today we have untold volumes of rich literature. The Lord tells us to search, to seek wisdom by study and by faith, and to read the best books to gain wisdom and access to the choice thoughts of others.

    David Starr Jordan gives us a tremendous thought that I would like to read, for I think that if we can really determine what life is all about and what lies ahead for us, perhaps we can sift out the bad and discipline ourselves to catch the good. Mr. Jordan states:

    “Your first duty in life is toward your afterself. So live that the man you ought to be may, in his time, be possible, be actual. Far away in the years he is waiting his turn. His body, his brain, his soul, are in your boyish hands. He cannot help himself. What will you leave for him? Will it be a brain unspoiled by lust or dissipation; a mind trained to think and act; a nervous system true as a dial in its response to the truth about you? Will you, Boy, let him come as a man among men in his time? Or will you throw away his inheritance before he has had the chance to touch it? Will you turn over to him a brain distorted, a mind diseased, a will untrained to action, a spinal cord grown through and through with ‘the devil-grass of wild oats’? Will you let him come and take your place, gaining through your experience, happy in your friendships, hallowed through your joys, building on them his own? Or will you fling it all away, decreeing, wanton-like, that the man you might have been shall never be? This is your problem in life—the problem which is vastly more to you than any or all others. How will you meet it, as a man or as a fool? It comes before you today and every day, and the hour of your choice is the crisis in your destiny!”

    I suppose that you are beginning to understand what life is all about. We cry in the world today because we say the world is in turmoil. Yet it is a wonderful world. How great are the technological advances that have been made, the ability of man’s mind, and his possibilities in creating. Recently this came over my desk:

    “One of the things that troubles most thinking people today is that while mankind’s scientific progress moves ahead with great leaps, his capacity to deal with moral and ethical problems creeps forward at a snail’s pace. This dilemma worried Ben Franklin, too. In a letter to Joseph Priestly, he wrote: ‘The rapid progress that true science now makes, occasions my regretting that I was born too soon. It is impossible to imagine the height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the power of man over matter. We may perhaps learn to deprive large masses of their gravity, and give them absolute levity, for the sake of easy transportation. [That certainly has come to pass, hasn’t it, in the jets that move throughout the earth by man’s ingenious mind?] Agriculture may diminish its labor and double its produce [that has come to pass, not doubled, but tripled, quadrupled]; all diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured [medical men are working on that]; not excepting that of old age, and our lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian standard. [That is a long way away, but those in the medical profession are working on it. Perhaps they will lengthen life; perhaps they will control aging. But Ben says this in a final statement:] Oh, that moral science were in as fair a way of improvement, that men would cease to be wolves to one another, and that human beings would at length learn what they now improperly call humanity!’”

    This is our problem, and you young people, above all else, must help solve this problem. For you must learn the true meaning of life—that you have the responsibility of building a society that will not destroy itself, a society that can only come by living the true laws of God.

    Keep the Commandments

    A young man wanted to know what life was all about, so he went to the Master and said:

    “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?

    “And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life [remember that], keep the commandments.

    “He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness.

    “Honour thy father and thy mother and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

    “The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?

    “Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.

    “But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.” (Matt. 19:16–22.)

    Every gifted and intelligent person stops to wonder what life is all about and what he wants to be. Anne Morrow Lindbergh in her Gift of the Sea gives a little insight into her life:

    “The shape of my life is, of course, determined by many other things; my background and childhood, my mind and its education, my conscience and its pressures, my heart and its desires. I want to give and take from my children and husband, to share with friends and community, to carry out my obligations to man and to the world, as a woman, as an artist, as a citizen.

    “But I want first of all—in fact, as an end to these other desires—to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities, as well as I can. I want, in fact—to borrow from the language of the saints—to live ‘in grace’ as much of the time as possible. I am not using this term in a strictly theological sense. By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony.”

    What shall we do with opportunity? You are not endowed with the same talents; no two of you are the same, but you have an intelligence. Hopefully, you have the drive to accomplish what you want to do.

    Some years ago my wife clipped an article from a magazine. She said, “John, here is a parable you might be able to use sometime.” I have used it because it comes right down to the bare facts of life. Perhaps it might cause you to think:

    “And in those days, behold there came through the Gates of the City a Salesman from afar off. And it came to pass as the day went by that he sold aplenty.

    “And in that City were they that were the Order Takers and they that spent their days in adding to the alibi sheets. Mightily were they astonished. Said they one to the other, ‘What giveth here? How doth he getteth away with it?’ And it came to pass that many were gathered in the back office, and a Soothsayer came among them. And he was one wise guy. And they spoke and questioned him, saying, ‘How is it that this stranger accomplished the impossible?’

    “Whereupon the Soothsayer made answer: ‘He of whom you speak is one live wire. He ariseth very early in the morning and goeth forth full of pep. He complaineth not, neither doth he know despair. Also, he is arrayed in purple and gold, while ye go forth with pants unpressed and unkempt footgear.

    “‘While ye gather here and say one to the other, “Verily, this is a terrible day to work,” he is already abroad. And when the eleventh hour cometh, he needeth no alibi. He knoweth his line, and they that would stave him off, they give him orders. Men say unto him “Nay” when he cometh in, yet when he goeth forth he hath their names on the line that is dotted.

    “‘He taketh with him the two angels, Inspiration and Perspiration, and he worketh to beat the band. Verily I say unto you: Go and do ye likewise.’”

    The ability, the power, the strength, the knowledge that you need to achieve is within you. All it takes is the application of the truths of life to accomplish. May God grant that within our hearts as young people and forever more we may catch the vision of the meaning of life, the truth that we know we can apply to it, so that we shall not disappoint ourselves nor our Father in heaven but again regain his presence by keeping our second estate. I bear witness to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For I know that it is the only thing that will bring peace to the soul and progress to the individual, that will bring to him the happiness and the joy that was meant for man to have.

    Illustrated by James Christensen