“A man is literally what he thinks. His character is the sum of all his thoughts,” James Allen wrote in his classic, As a Man Thinketh. While I was serving as a mission president, I saw dramatic evidence of the truth of that statement in the lives of our missionaries.
Upon his arrival in the mission field, a new missionary sat with me as we discussed his duties and responsibilities and the discipline they would require of him. As I outlined what was expected of him, he stopped me: “Just a minute, President Backman. There’s something you ought to know. I’m stupid.”
Being determined to demonstrate to him the great capacity for service he possessed as a son of God, and to awaken in him a realization of his unique mission on earth, I assigned him to a senior companion who worked him to the bone, pressing him to learn, grow, and serve, despite his professed weakness. In addition, I kept after him to the point that his district leader wrote me in a report that the new missionary intended to punch me in the nose the next time I toured the mission.
Within weeks my wife and I made a final tour of the mission before we were released. I took the opportunity to sit down privately with each missionary so I could express my love and confidence in him. The new missionary’s turn came. I closed the door of the room behind him, removed the glasses I was wearing, and said, “If it will make you feel any better, elder, go right ahead.” For a moment, I thought he was going to follow through with his threat. Instead, he fell into my arms crying. I then had one of those precious moments when I shared with him my knowledge and understanding of his divine potential and his capacity to love and serve his fellow beings. As we concluded our discussion, I remarked that if he wanted to make me happy, he would come to my office in Salt Lake City in about two years and tell me he had finished his mission.
We had been home from our mission about two years when I looked up from my office desk one morning to see a grinning face peering through the door. It was my missionary. Without any word of greeting, he declared, “President, I finished my mission!”
I was so proud of him!
Another new missionary was so shy and bashful he could not look at me without blushing. I discovered he had been reared on a pig farm and was much more comfortable with pigs than with people. It was very difficult for him to talk to anyone, yet he had a burning desire to be a great missionary. Later, when we attended zone conference in the zone to which he was assigned, the missionary stood to bear his testimony: “President, I have discovered that becoming a missionary is like playing football.” He told of his leaving the farm to attend high school. As he registered for school, he noticed the football team practicing and decided he would like to play, but he didn’t have any football shoes or the money to buy any. Then he remembered that his cousin had been a football star at the school. He visited his cousin, asking whether he could borrow his shoes. His cousin gave him the shoes but warned, “Don’t you disgrace them.”
Our missionary made the team as a defensive tackle. In the first game of the season, he found himself at the first line of scrimmage, hunkered down opposite a great, big, mean senior lineman. He took one look at that fearsome opponent, gulped, and said to himself, “‘I can’t knock him down! But my cousin could—and I’m wearing my cousin’s shoes.’ So I went ahead and knocked him down, and kept on knocking him down all through the game.”
What kind of a missionary do you think he became?
How important it is for us to approach life with the right kind of attitude—to think positively about life and our role in it.
I used to remind my missionaries repeatedly, “Whether you believe you can, or believe you cannot, you are right.” I told them of a magazine advertisement I had seen that displayed a picture of a bumblebee. Under the picture was the caption, “The bumblebee can’t fly. By all the laws of aerodynamics, its body is too bulky for its wings, but the bumblebee doesn’t know it, so it flies.”
Marcus Aurelius spoke the following truth: “Our life is what our thoughts make it.”
At a youth conference where great emphasis had been given to our potential as children of God, a girl stood to bear her testimony. She said, “I know we can only be what we think we can be. I’m going to go home from this conference, look in the mirror, and say to myself, ‘Susan, you’re beautiful!’”
Armed with knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ and our identity as spirit children of God, Latter-day Saints should be the most positive-thinking people in the world. We know that our loving Father in Heaven has put us here to succeed—not to fail. That should help us walk by faith. We should be optimistic and confident that we are blessed to be a part of the divine plan, a plan of eternal salvation. If we want to be more positive minded, more enthusiastic, more optimistic, the solution lies within us.
“A man is literally what he thinks.”
My beloved young brothers and sisters, as you mature, I would encourage you to think positive thoughts about your unique personality, your glorious future, the beautiful truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and your relationship to your personal Savior. Those thoughts will impel you to action, assuring you of a rich, productive life here and eternal lives and exaltation hereafter.
The apostle Paul, desiring that the early Saints think positive thoughts, said it so well in his epistle to the Philippians:
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philip. 4:8).