This is a talk I gave in several different wards over the years, and I sometimes get requests for it.
Romantic Adventuring, Enduring to the End, and The Return of the Jedi
I got the idea for this talk when I saw the movie, The Return of the Jedi. After that movie, I felt wonderful—good triumphed over evil, friends were reunited, and love conquered all. “Wouldn’t it be great,” I thought, “if I were involved in some great struggle like that? I would be like Princess Leia, beautiful and thin and brave and resourceful and intelligent and kind and witty. I would be like Luke Skywalker, too. I would have a great task to perform, and I would endure danger and temptation, but I would accomplish my task, remain loyal to my friends and to all that is good, and maintain my integrity. Even though there would be sorrow, I would, at last, be united with my friends and family and we would have a great celebration and live happily ever after.”
Then the thought came to my mind, as it has probably come to yours, that I am involved in “a great struggle like that” and so are we all. I do have several great tasks to perform, although I’m not sure what all of them are. Paul told the Ephesians that we are facing the very “wiles of the devil”—that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:11–12). Darth Vader seems like a wimp in the face of all that. Why, then, I wondered, does The Return of the Jedi fill me with noble yearnings when my own life seems hardly worth the trouble of a personal history, much less full-scale cinematic treatment?
Perhaps because the inner battle is less easily filmed. And perhaps because the romantic adventuring we see in books and TV and movies, the heroes and the battles against evil, leave out so much. When I was younger, I loved to read Nancy Drew mystery books. I still like to read them sometimes. But after a few years of Nancy Drew books, I became a little irritated with the hero and her creators. After all, she was perfect. She was always queen of the prom, she spoke every language, she sang, she danced, she earned straight A’s, she was popular and pretty and on top of all that, humble, kind, and lovable. And though she was always getting into danger (and getting out of it), she never had mundane troubles—she was never sick, her hair was never dirty, she never had to do the laundry or scrub the bathroom, she never ran out of her father’s money, she didn’t sweat, her skin was clear, she always had the right thing to wear, and even when things seemed to be going wrong it turned out that they really went right. No wonder I wanted to live her life—she went from one significant or exciting moment to the next, with no trudging along in between. It would be like doing genealogical research and having every website or book you opened or microfilm you looked at contain information about your ancestors. It would be magic.
But this life is not magic. It’s not always happy, and it’s not even filled with noble tragedy. This life can be filled with petty disappointments, dull sameness, mundane drudgery, unnamable anxieties, large and small unfairnesses and tensions—plenty of things to make us wish that life were a little more like The Return of the Jedi. And don’t get me wrong, I love TV and movies and I love to escape into a good movie or book. But we should not believe that the fantasy worlds of movies and TV and sometimes books are the worlds we should live in. They’re not, and I’m not sure we would want to if we could.
I think these yearnings for involvement, adventure, and victory in the great struggle that we sometimes feel after reading a book or seeing a movie occur because the fictional battles against evil are shadows and reflections, some clearer than others, of the great battle against the true evil. And our desires for romance are shadows and reflections, again, some clearer and truer than others, of the Christlike love and wonderful romance that we can experience in our righteous marriages and someday as kings and queens before our Heavenly Father. We see many of these future possibilities through a glass, darkly. These books, movies, and so on can awaken in us feelings that are good, even divine. But I am concerned that, instead of encouraging us to work even harder to see “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12), our yearnings for romance and adventure can lead us away from the true romance and adventure that come only after patience and work. Satan can use these feelings to encourage us to seek quick gratification and fulfillment of our yearnings in ways that we must not, for things that are not even fully available in this life. That liar and accuser will, as usual, try to convince us to sell our birthrights for a mess of pottage. He will ever suggest that when the honeymoon is over, we are justified in moving on.
For example, when I joined the Church, the folks in the Dallas 3rd Ward made rather a fuss over me. Somewhat to the dismay, I suspect, of the other Laurel-age girls, I was the new and golden girl in town. I enjoyed all that attention and the congratulations and the status. It was, in a way, a romantic adventure. But of course, as it always does, the adulation faded and in a few weeks the good brothers and sisters of the ward began to take me for granted. It would have been easy for me to be crushed. After all, I had just found the only true Church and decided to join it and wasn’t my life going to be one perfect moment after another from now on? Weren’t the people in the Church always going to cherish me and notice me and we’d all be cozy and attentive to one another at all times? Wasn’t I now exempt from having to do my homework, clean my room, or explain to my non–Latter-day Saint mother where I was going and who I’d be with? Well no, of course not, but at its worst extreme, false romance could have led me to join one new church after another until I ran out of churches, I suppose, enjoying those few brief weeks of attention and then moving on.
Similarly, I worry about people who see and believe what passes for grown-up romance as depicted in movies and television and books. The Love Boat formula would have us believe that true love strikes in the space of a rustle of Cupid’s wing, is interrupted by petty squabbles that are solved by going to bed with one another, married or not, and then we walk off the boat into a future of happily ever after. Perhaps that’s one of the worst examples, but the love stories of popular culture never show the dashing young man throwing up with the flu or the lovely young woman with a drip of mustard on her blouse. Nobody ever has bad breath or forgets to rinse out his cereal bowl or leaves a ring around the bathtub. Real love and real romance require self-control, commitment, time—sometimes years—and a good deal of communication and day-to-day patience. But it’s difficult and perhaps impossible to show all that in a couple of hours, or even a trilogy on film. It takes a masterful writer to tell the tale of the real “true romance,” even in a full-length book, especially with an editor who insists that you have to “hook” the reader and move the plot along before anyone can stop to think. And it takes a brave writer, these days, to show the tragic consequences that follow sin. So we are surrounded by cheap, misleading counterfeits.
Popular culture teaches that life is full of special days and dramatic moments, but in reality we don’t have those things often, and they don’t last. In E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Mrs. Moore expressed it well: “… life never gives us what we want at the moment we consider appropriate. Adventures do occur, but not punctually.” On his fourth birthday, my son said, “I can’t go to bed; my birthday will be over!” Birthdays always end. We always go back to regular things. After the party with the Ewoks, Luke and Han and Leia have to go back to day-to-day life. Even after the funeral, the rest of us have to go back to life and work and deciding what to have for dinner and whether to do laundry today or tomorrow.
” . . . life never gives us what we want at the moment we consider it appropriate. Adventures do occur, but not punctually.”Mrs. Moore in E. M. Forster, A Passage to India
How do we keep ourselves from the habit of thinking that life should be full of highlights and drama? How do we keep from thinking so often, “I wish something would happen!” and believing the world owes us romance and adventure? Part of the solution is to see the problem. Another part is to read good literature—it need not be filled with day-to-day drudgery, but it should realize that the drudgery is there. It should reflect what Milton knew, that “they also serve who only stand and wait.”
One of my favorite examples of this kind of literature, that can inspire us to reach for the noblest goals without expecting to attain them instantly, is J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings. It is a great adventure—a company of four hobbits, two men, a wizard, a dwarf, and an elf set off on a great journey to destroy the One Ring of Power. They must destroy it lest it fall into the hands of Sauron, who would use it to enslave Middle Earth through darkness and evil. Unfortunately, the only way to destroy it is to take it to Mordor, the filthy wasteland that serves as Sauron’s stronghold, and cast it into the volcanic innards of Mount Doom, which stands next door to Sauron’s tower. So this is a great and dangerous quest against evil. Frodo Baggins, one of the hobbits, wears this ring on a chain around his neck, and because of its strong potential for evil, it is a great burden. The other problem to be faced is that Sauron is beginning to make open war against the folk of Middle Earth, and all sorts of orcs (his loathsome servants), and men he’s turned to his side, and evil beasts are coming out of Mordor in an attempt to conquer what they can until the Ring of Power is found. Well, again, this is all a great adventure and if you haven’t read it, you should. But the thing that makes it greatest to me occurs when Frodo and the others split up. Merry and Pippin, two of the hobbits, are captured by orcs, and a man, elf, and dwarf go after them to attempt a rescue. The wizard and the other man have apparently been killed. And Frodo and the other hobbit, Sam, set off alone to Mordor.
Now, we see inspiring adventures here—Merry and Pippin have all the adventures anyone could ever hope to have. But they also are injured. Their adventures don’t always turn out well or go smoothly. They sometimes have to go hungry, or face grief. That’s realistic. Even more realistic to our situation, where we’re not in the middle of several wars, is the journey that Frodo and Sam make to Mordor. They face some perils and receive help in unexpected ways, but at the last it’s just Frodo and Sam, weak, hungry, thirsty, and hot, plodding along as best they can, expecting any minute to be captured or simply to fall down in their tracks. Sam wakes up from a fitful sleep one morning and guesses that it is fifty miles to Mount Doom. He thinks,
“… that’ll take a week, if it takes a day, with Mr. Frodo as he is.” He shook his head, and as he worked things out, slowly a new dark thought grew in his mind. Never for long had hope died in his staunch heart, and always until now he had taken some thought for their return. But the bitter truth came home to him at last: at best their provision would take them to their goal; and when the task was done, there they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless in the midst of a terrible desert. There could be no return.
“So that was the job I felt I had to do when I started,” thought Sam: “to help Mr. Frodo to the last step and then die with him? Well, if that is the job then I must do it.”Sam Gamgee in J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
Here is the heroism—not in anything Sam may yet do, although that is heroic enough, but in the foundation for all he will do—in the decision to go on, in the decision to endure to the end, and in actually going on. In the beginning, when the hobbits decided to go on the journey and destroy the Ring, the knowledge of horrible danger was tempered, perhaps, by the feeling that there would be excitement and adventure and heroics along the way. There would be powerful others—elves and men and wizards—to help. Even if there was to be death, it would be a glorious, hero’s death. But here, Sam and Frodo have left excitement, adventure, and all hope of help behind. They are alone in an awful place, and if they die, which it looks like they will, no one will know where they died; no one will hail them as heroes, especially if they are unable to destroy the Ring. And yet, they will go on as long as they can.
Perhaps we, in our premortal state, also looked forward to our mortal lives as great adventures. After all, this is our second estate, and everything more or less depends on it. As we looked forward to our birth into this life, it must have seemed fraught with danger and chances for heroism—will I find the Church? Will I stay with it? Will I serve a mission? Be married in the temple? Be a good parent? Will I bring someone else to the truth?
Each of these questions, asked alone, might have caused our spirits to envision the great celebrations that come at the achievement of these milestones, and at the end of a righteous life. We knew there would be others to help us— parents, teachers, family, friends. Perhaps we did not think much about the daily work and patience and solitary plodding along that come before any accomplishment or any reward. Perhaps we did not think about the dullness and frustration and loneliness we might feel when we are older, in a life where most of the hurdles seem jumped over and many of our fellow runners are gone, and all that is left is to keep jogging around the track, on ever-weaker legs and feet, until we are called home. Perhaps we did not see that all our personal heroisms and noble bearing of difficult burdens might not be appreciated—indeed, might not be noticed—by anyone but ourselves and the Lord.
But our spirits are older now than they were when we were in the premortal existence, and more experienced, and we can take the true news: This noble quest on which we have embarked will not and cannot be fulfilled until we return home to our Father and Mother in heaven for the true victory celebration. We must not expect that here, except for a few brief and cloudy reflections. And this quest, unlike a movie or a TV show or most books, involves a great deal of time where nothing seems to be happening to “move the story along.” We do not deserve anything more than that, but instead are required to make the most of it, and do our best at little things, and know that adventures will arrive in the Lord’s time.
We can see this so well in that greatest of all great literature, the scriptures. Sometimes we have to read between the lines. We see the angels coming to tell Abraham that Sarah would have a son, and their astonishment because of their old age (Genesis 18), and we see that Isaac was born (21:1–3). But we could think more carefully about the years—decades—of infertility that Sarah and Abraham suffered before Isaac came.
Similarly, we see Jacob, in love with his cousin Rachel, and he labored seven years for her father Laban in order to marry her. The scripture says, “they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her” (Genesis 29:20), and that’s a lovely thought. Those of you who have had someone you love spend time away from you know that, after it’s over, you can look back and think “that wasn’t so bad.” While it’s happening, though, the time does not exactly fly. Seven years is a long time. It was just as long for Rachel as it was for Jacob. Then, of course, Jacob discovered that he had married Leah, Rachel’s older sister, through Laban’s trickery. And the scriptures, being true, tell us of the time and effort and patience required before Jacob could finally marry the woman he loved. He didn’t have to go slay any dragons or rescue her from cocaine smugglers. He just had to muck out the barns for seven years and marry her older sister, too. Some of us would rather face the cocaine smugglers and get it over with, but that’s the point: we can’t get “it” over with in one glorious moment. It’s the day-to-day sticking with it that counts in real life.
Then we see Joseph, Jacob and Rachel’s son, but not just in his triumph as the trusted agent of Potiphar or as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. We also see him thrown half-dressed into a waterless, foodless pit while his brothers picnic on the grass above and debate whether to kill him or merely sell him into slavery (Genesis 37). That’s probably not the kind of adventure we had in mind.We see Joseph, falsely accused of attempting to seduce Potiphar’s wife, spending years in what must have been a wretched Egyptian prison—there was no Egyptian Civil Liberties Union to look into the conditions in those prisons. Even though Joseph tried to make the best of it, the gist of his experience in prison is probably best exemplified by the actions of Pharaoh’s chief butler, whose dream Joseph interpreted favorably and correctly, and whom Joseph asked for help to get out of the prison: “Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him” (Genesis 40:23). No one came to his rescue. No one seemed to care. His own brothers had sold him into slavery, he was far from home, and his father thought he was dead. But Joseph kept on faithfully doing his prison job.
In another case of quiet heroism and endurance, look at another Joseph, a carpenter from Nazareth. Imagine for a moment that you are engaged to a young woman you love dearly, and you find out that she’s expecting a baby. You know you are not the father. She says she’s “with child of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 1:18), and while you’d like to believe her, this kind of thing just doesn’t happen. Because you love her and are a just man, you believe you should put her away privately, rather than making a public example of her as some men would do and as you have the right to do (Matthew 1:19). What feelings and thoughts must Joseph have endured at that time, thinking he had been betrayed by his beloved Mary? But then, in a dream, an angel told him that Mary was indeed carrying the Son of God. And Joseph married her, and was a loving father to this miraculous and holy Son. Another quiet, day-to-day hero, he simply did what the Lord expected him to do.
Turning to the Book of Mormon, we see the prophet Moroni, wandering alone. The Lamanites are hunting down the remaining Nephites and killing those who will not deny Christ (Moroni 1:2). They killed Moroni’s father, Mormon, and Moroni writes, “I even remain alone to write the sad tale of the destruction of my people. … And whether they will slay me, I know not. … and whither I go it mattereth not. … I am alone. My father hath been slain in battle, and all my kinsfolk, and I have not friends nor whither to go; and how long the Lord will suffer that I may live I know not.” (Mormon 8:3–5.) We don’t know how long after Moroni wrote those words that he wandered alone, avoiding the hunting parties of the Lamanites, mourning his father and other loved ones who had been killed, and trying to avoid reliving those scenes of horror in his mind. We can imagine the discomforts of living outside, whether plagued by the heat of the day, the cold of a night sleeping on the ground, or both. Hungry, not knowing where or if food would be found. Perhaps the loneliness was the worst part. Nor do we know how Moroni met his end. We can shudder to think what the wicked Lamanites would have devised for him if they were able to capture him and knew who he was. Or perhaps he was surprised one afternoon and quickly dispatched to his reward. Whatever happened, however the end came and however long it was delayed, Moroni kept on and remained faithful. He endured even though there was no one to see him endure. This is not the stuff of which Hollywood heroes are made, but it is indeed the substance of God’s heroes.
When Satan tempted Jesus Christ, the Savior was taken by the Spirit to a high mountain, where He could see all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Satan said, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me” (JST Matthew 4:8–9). What was Satan tempting Jesus with? Jesus was the rightful heir of all kingdoms and glory already; He had but to fulfill His redeeming mission. But what was Satan saying? “You can have it now. Why have to walk all over Palestine, preaching to these backward people? Why have to endure the dust, the heat, the thirst, the hunger? Why have to mix with lepers, tax collectors, hypocrites, peasants? You don’t have to let these people spit in your face. You don’t have to endure agony, or even irritation. You can have it all now, in one dramatic moment. You can have it now.”
The Lord resisted that temptation. Will we? We want to do what is right. Inside us is a God-given desire to conquer the dragons of mortal life and return home as heroes who kept their second estate. But there are many temptations to seek a quick and hollow victory, shallow and flashy adventure, cheap and sequin-studded romance, glittery glory. Let us resist that temptation and resolve to wait—for glory, for adventure, for victory, and if we must, for romance—and to build those rewards from our daily patience and purity and unselfishness. We can wait, and it is worth the wait, though no movie or TV show or book can tell us just how worth the wait: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).