Insights


Neal A. Maxwell

Insights

Counting our blessings is a good thing. So is inventorying our insights so that we are enriched by our learning experiences.

These few examples—more personal than profound—may be catalytic for the reader.

My mid-teens were years when there was a confluence of conditions that tried and vexed me. Those are years when peer approval weighs so heavily. I found myself contending with shortness of stature, shyness, a home with outdoor plumbing, and a 4-H pig project, each of which had by then become an embarrassment. The periodic pain can be smiled at now but was real enough then. Programmed by doting uncles (and myself) in early childhood to love basketball and to aspire to be all-state, I had (until this period) been more adept at basketball than most peers. Soon I started not making the first string, then the second, and then the squad. It was a bitter pill. This failure (for the first time in athletic affairs) cruelly combined with other indications that I was for the first time outside that hard to define but real inner circle. It was a time of long thoughts. Somehow being at home feeding the pigs was not like working out with the team, especially when the boy down the block (whom I had helped somewhat to learn to play basketball) was where I wanted to be: he went on to be all-state, which he deserved.

During this time, I noticed that recycling regrets didn’t change reality. Pawing through the past was not productive. (This period was the time when my aspirations got diverted to the world of words, where there was a teacher who would not let me pass without genuine achievement.) Thus an insight dawned—not all at once—showing me that too much attention to what might have been actually gets in the way of what still can be.

In the spring of 1945, I was on Okinawa as a frightened, barely adequate infantry replacement, concerned with victory to be sure, but very much concerned with selfish survival. Japanese artillery pieces had tried for several days without success to hit the little plateau our mortar squad was on. Then one evening they dropped three shells on us; they had finally found the range and we knew it, and they surely knew it. Since one of those shells fell just several feet from my foxhole, I was stimulated to intense prayer, full of promises. Strangely, no more shells fell near us that evening—at the very time when more shells should have been fired for effect. The Lord that night blessed me and others. But suppose He also told me to be of good cheer, for not only would I live, but one day (just a few ridges away) I would preach the gospel to an LDS chapel full of members! Could I have managed that perspective? Probably not. Yet that is what happened in 1973, 28 years later, as I was privileged to go back to that—for me—sacred spot. Sugar cane has since covered the little plateau but not my poignant memories of Okinawa, that bloodiest battle in the Pacific.

Two insights emerged. First, it is naive to think we can repay God for His blessings. I am more and more in debt to Him now than ever in 1945, and I will be forever and ever. God blesses according to law—but out of all proportion to the ratios we mortals reckon by. Second, along with believing in the gospel, we need to believe in our own possibilities, not as to status, but as to our power to do good.

God could surprise, yes, even stun, each of us if we could presently manage such divine disclosures. Such must usually be kept from us or can only be hinted at for now.

God gives us the gospel by which we get direction, motivation, and illumination, but there appears to be no point in God’s illuminating the trail beyond where our eyes of faith can see.

There have been insights about silence—its usefulness and its dangers. A few dealings with student dissenters in the late 1960s taught me, too late to help them, that my silent disgust did not necessarily teach them. Unexplained indignation is not always communication. True, silence in some circumstances is a powerful reproof, but not in other situations. To withhold deserved reproof (and the reasons therefore) may be to withhold a warning that is needed. Reproof is often a last railing at the edge of a cliff. The finest of friends must sometimes be stern sentinels. The explained “No” of such stern sentinels is more to be prized than the accommodating “Yes” of others.

I’ve learned, too, that silence can also be very productive, even though it often makes us anxious. A fine colleague and friend came to my office shortly after I’d been sustained as a General Authority. I greeted him warmly, but, contrary to my usual style, I stayed mostly silent. His eyes brimmed with tears as he finally said that as he listened to conference, he knew he needed to come in to set things right. I resisted the impulse to intervene reassuringly, since I knew of nothing that was wrong. He then continued, saying that he was becoming active in the Church again and knew that he needed to repair certain relationships. Happily, I again resisted stemming his flow of feeling. With courage and tenderness, he indicated that he had at times said things about me that were untrue and unkind and he wanted to seek my forgiveness. Only then did I really respond by telling him of my regard, of my unawareness and unconcern over what he had reported. Most importantly, I told him of my love, admiration, and forgiveness. We embraced. I expressed admiration for his courage and manhood. He then said how difficult it had been to come in that day and how he had almost called to cancel the appointment. We spoke together of the wisdom contained in Matthew 18:15 [Matt. 18:15] and Jesus’ counsel therein as to what we should do when there are impasses in human relationships. I love that man and respect him for taking the initiative, since I had been unaware of the matter. He is fully and effectively active in the kingdom today. He needed to say what he said more than I needed to hear it. I’m so grateful I did not rush in to fill the silence that he used so well.

While recognition is a basic human need and is important in public service, there are those who do too many things “to be seen of men.” I had the privilege of seeing this on a grand scale in the U.S. Senate where there seems to be an imbalance between the showhorses and workhorses. I can remember vividly standing next to Lyndon Johnson one day in a Senate chamber anteroom as we both read a ticker tape with a news story about a major bill coming out of a Senate committee after months of labor. One senator who had not been attending the sessions while hearings were being held and tedious testimony was being taken, had managed, nevertheless, to show up the day the bill was reported out to take his bows before waiting TV cameras. He was one of those senators who would show up for the opening of an envelope. The man at my side, later to be President, mentioned his disgust for the showhorse senator who let others do the work while he took the bows. So often in human affairs, the many depend on the few to lead, to set the pace, and to show the way. It was so even in the inspired sessions of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. I’m grateful to have received in diverse ways that insight in my 20s.

Some modest adventures into the world of public service of various kinds have helped me to see, too, that the shaping of the choices in the political process is at least as important as choosing among the choices. In electoral ecology, there is a greater impact and influence at the front-end of the process than in the voting booth—as sacred and special as the latter is. The voting booth is very democratic, but the shaping of alternatives is aristocratic; it is done by the few. It’s all so much more than just going in that little voting booth for a minute and being 60-second citizens.

Petitioning in prayer has taught me, again and again, that the vault of heaven with all its blessings is to be opened only by a combination lock. One tumbler falls when there is faith, a second when there is personal righteousness; the third and final tumbler falls only when what is sought is, in God’s judgment—not ours—right for us. Sometimes we pound on the vault door for something we want very much and wonder why the door does not open. We would be very spoiled children if that vault door opened any more easily than it does. I can tell, looking back, that God truly loves me by inventorying the petitions He has refused to grant me. Our rejected petitions tell us much about ourselves but also much about our flawless Father.

By inventorying our insights, from time to time, it will surprise us “what the Lord has done” in teaching us. What we have learned in the past can help us to persist in the present. By tallying the truths and keeping such before us, we can also avoid lapsed literacy in spiritual things. If we will let Him, the Holy Ghost will bring all the important insights to our remembrance.

[illustration] Illustrated by Hiram Richardson