Creativity and Celebration of Success vs. the D.F.T. File
Editor’s note: This post is part of a collaborative effort of Mormon bloggers who are reading and writing about General Conference talks. We’ve started with talks from 1971. The goal is to read and write weekly until we have read of the talks from prophets and apostles. If we keep up the pace we have started, we will have caught up by July 2029 with the April 2029 Conference! The other posts from this week’s reading, which focused on the Saturday Afternoon Session of the April 1971 General Conference, are at the bottom of the post.
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The Power of Creation
I was in quite a rut — mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually — when I read the talks from the Saturday afternoon session of the 1971 LDS General Conference for our General Conference Odyssey project. I was also in a writing rut. What would I share? I like to wait for inspiration when I write, but none was coming.
The headlines as of late haven’t helped, of course. And I have my own imagined headlines that run in my brain, a mental marquis of negative messages that has been consuming a lot of my energy (and making it hard for me to feel the Spirit).
This is not uncommon for me (I deal with anxiety and dysthymia (a form of depression) and OCD) but the familiarity of it doesn’t make it any easier to sit in it when it comes. Those of you who struggle with anxiety or depression or other mental illnesses may understand what I mean.
But God showed me this weekend that even when I feel stuck, the Spirit does have a way of getting through in ways I can hear, and that — as Elder Bednar shared so beautifully on Sunday at the Christmas devotional — we do worship a Savior who is our Light.
Late Sunday evening, I had a prompting to visit a friend and take her a copy of a book I’m reading (more below). I fought the prompting for a bit but finally decided to send my friend a text. She was willing to have me come drop off the book.
I’m so glad I acted on that prompting. Not only did I get my spark of inspiration for this post, but after a 3 1/2-hour conversation with my friend (“that was a long ‘drop-off’ visit, Mom”), I also had a weeks-long prayer answered.
The prayer that was pressing on my heart is hard to put into words, but it went something like this:
Father, I have to believe that pain and suffering aren’t the only ways you teach us as Thy children. I know I need to be submissive and willing to learn from whatever may come in my life, but there is so much fear in me and it is blocking my view of Thee, and hindering my ability to feel Thy love. Can you help me?
I brought this question to my awesome therapist (I gave him an assignment, actually, to consider times in his life when God taught him through good stuff). I was grateful that he took my request seriously and came back with a second witness to insight that had come to me as well: that even the good things in life come with challenges, that “There must needs be opposition in all things.”
But there was something still unsettled in my soul. Sunday, the seed for a turning point was planted as I was reading in Wendy Ulrich’s book, The Temple Experience: Passage to Healing and Holiness: She touched on the concept of opposition as well, but there was more to her message. Writing about the creation story and the separation of — and necessity of — darkness and light, Sister Ulrich rejoices in the truth that we worship a being who is the Great Creator — and reminded me that as children of Heavenly Parents, we have the seeds of godliness in us. We have the power and potential to create.
“The temple and the scriptures tutor us in our godlike capacity to create…. Gratefully, the creation story reminds me that, even for God, creation proceeds in steps, with alternating periods of pondering from a cerebral distance and descending into the chaos to get our hands dirty…. We spend much of our creative time in the dark. And we need help from others along the way….”
God really got my attention with this statement, though:
“Some people become fascinated with [or mentally stuck in] the dark side and focus too much on the inevitability of overwhelming struggle, forgetting there even is Day. They may have learned by hard experience to be suspicious of of hope, proactivity, and vision for fear of disappointment.” (p. 84)
This described my current rut (and really, some of my lifelong mental marquis messsages) to a T! But rather than try to talk me out of the darkness I was feeling, Sister Ulrich (or, better said, the Lord, “The Generous One,” through her) gently urged me to trust my process, a process that of necessity does include some darkness:
“While we accept the rhythms of light and dark in the natural world, we tend to resist our own dark hours of descent, trying to always stay above it all, in control, happy, knowledgeable, and safe. But darkness is an inevitable starting point. Darkness can give depth and grounding to our souls and our creativity. In fact, even after the Lord brings light to the earth, light and dark alternate in regular rhythms throughout its existence — and ours. We are meant to spend some time here in the dark.” (p. 86)
The Lord also He let me know that it’s ok to need others’ help in the dark:
“But most of us get nervous in the dark. We need others to go with us when the darkness is vast and the elements unstable so we don’t get lost out there. ” (p. 86)
No wonder He inspired me to visit my friend.
As I sat on my couch reading some of these passages from Wendy Ulrich’s book to my friend, and as we discussed the principle of creativity, suddenly Elder Sterling W. Sill’s 1971 talk was thrown into my consciousness. I sat upright as I grabbed my phone to read some of his words to her. And I was suddenly snatched out of my spiritual slump as I realized God was answering my prayer.
Elder Sill said:
“The purpose of the Church is to help us translate the principles of the gospel of Christ into constructive, meaningful human experience,”
When I’m in my dark place, not a lot of my experience feels meaningful. Elder Sill gives a warning very similar to what I had read in Sister Ulrich’s book:
“Because we draw so much from the rebellion, weakness, and evil with which we are surrounded, we tend to load ourselves up too heavily with guilt complexes, mental problems, insecurity, and mediocrity.”
(Guilty as charged. And he (He) wasn’t done gently calling me out, yet.)
“I recently heard of a man who compounded the problem by hoarding his mistakes. He often referred to the fact that his D.F.T. drawer was the largest file in his office. Someone once asked him what these file letters stood for, and he said they identified a collection of the damn fool things that he had done. Most of us are not bad people—we just let our D.F.T. files get too large.”
(When I read this the first time, I laughed out loud. With this General Conference project, I expected my primary purpose would be to look for prophetic patterns across decades, and because that is one of my personal passions, that is already true. But I was delighted to realize that there will be things in the messages from decades past that will stand out as different, and God can use those things to get my attention, too. Delightful — even sometimes disarming — surprise is one way that God reveals to me that He is at work in my life.)
As a recovering perfectionist (I’ve written before that I have been doing 12-step work for years to help me with my anxiety, perfectionism, and OCD), Elder Sill’s words were a good reminder to surrender my mortal weakness to God and let Him worry about that. My job is repent of sin, and to rejoice in goodness! — not to waste time and energy obsessing about the fact that I make mistakes constantly (that is what it means to be human, after all). (This is another important principle about which Wendy Ulrich writes extensively. See, for example, this April 2015 Ensign article, “It’s Not a Sin to be Weak.”)
God was not done surprising me, with Elder Sill’s words, though. His suggested antidote to the D.F.T. File has left me pondering more about how obsessing about my weakness or trying to fix myself gets in the way of a particular, powerful kind of gratitude.
Recently a group of bishops were asked for a report on their work. They were told not to discuss their problems, but to describe what they did better than anyone else. This philosophy of excellence was demonstrated by the artist Whistler, who once painted a tiny picture of a spray of roses. The artistry involved was magnificent. Never before, it seemed, had the art of man been able to execute quite so deftly a reproduction of the art of nature. The picture was the envy of the artists who saw it, the despair of the collectors who yearned to buy it for their collections, but Whistler refused steadfastly to sell it.
“For,” said he, “whenever I feel that my hand has lost its cunning, whenever I doubt my ability, I look at the little picture of the spray of roses and say to myself, ‘Whistler, you painted that. Your hand drew it. Your imagination conceived the colors. Your skill put the roses on the canvas.’ Then,” he said, “I know that what I have done I can do again.”
Then he gave us a great philosophy of success. He said, “Hang on the walls of your mind the memory of your successes. Take counsel of your strength, not your weakness. Think of the good jobs you have done. Think of the times when you rose above your average level of performance and carried out an idea or a dream or a desire for which you had deeply longed. Hang these pictures on the walls of your mind and look at them as you travel the roadway of life.”
When we recount the good that we’ve been able to do, the successes we have had, we can show a special reverence to God and to Christ, because They are the Givers of all good things.
Here was part of the answer to my prayer. It really is good to recount and celebrate the good in my life (and others’), and deliberately declare it good. To acknowledge the good in me and my work, boldly and specifically. Ironically, part of perfectionism is to be convinced that nothing is ever good enough — exactly the kind of mental marquis message Elder Sill was warning about!
(Interestingly, I’m just now connecting all of this with how Sister Ulrich invites engaging in a similar exercise at the end of the chapter I read Sunday. “Acknowledging goodness. Take a few minutes to consider how you created your life today….Which of the choices you have made today can you acknowledge as good?” (p. 98, emphasis in original) Again, God’s pattern of creation is instructive for us: At every stage along the process, He declared His work to be good.)
I have to chuckle again at how Elder Sill delighted me even further as he modeled what this kind of creative gratitude can look like:
Now I am not going to burden you this afternoon with the contents of my D.F.T. file, but I would like to tell you about some of my great experiences. Great experience number one is that I managed to get myself born.:
[He later quips that “In my own case, I didn’t find out that I had been born until quite a long time after it happened.”]
“Henry Thoreau, an early American philosopher, once said that we should thank God every day of our lives for the privilege of having been born. And then he went on to speculate on the rather unique supposition of what it might have been like if we had not been born. Just suppose that you had never been born or that your parents had never been born. Think of all of the excitement and opportunities you would have missed as a consequence. What Mr. Thoreau may not have known was that one-third of all of the children of God never were born and never can be born because they failed to pass the requirements of their first estate. And yet, every spirit child of God hungers for a body. We remember the unembodied spirits who appeared to Jesus in his day who preferred to have the bodies of swine rather than not to have any bodies at all.”
Just being born is a success to celebrate! But, of course, there are so many other ways the gifts God has given us are manifest.
After reading Elder Sill’s words to my friend, I felt prompted to verbally claim some of the creative things I have done in my life — even in the face of opposition. It felt powerful and good to acknowledge this divine part of my being. I am a creator!
[I encourage you to try this exercise. Don’t only list the ways you have seen God bless your life, but humbly yet boldly list the successes you have experienced that reflect His creative power in and through and because of you. If you are feeling brave, share it out loud with someone. I realized how powerful it was to use my voice — as God did — to declare my/God’s work good.]
I can’t end this (admittedly long) post (which is, for me, more of a journal entry) without sharing the interesting contrasting-and-yet-still-consistent principle that Sister Ulrich shared at the end of this chapter I read.
She writes about a time when she was in a rut herself — just recovering from a long illness, buried to the brim with a suddenly-increasing workload. In the midst of this time of exhaustion and overwhelm, the prompting came to make a gift out of wood for a friend. With what time? (She seemed to have none.) With what skills? (“I knew almost nothing about woodworking and even less about painting,” she writes.)
And yet, she followed that prompting, despite “all the ‘Very Important Work’ I would have to ignore and all the humiliation I would undoubtedly suffer in the process….” (p. 95) (Interesting once again to reflect how promptings really can come even when we feel distant or discouraged — often in surprising ways.)
She had friends help her set up a shop in her garage, teach her how to use the tools, and show her some painting skills. (Isn’t it lovely that the prompting prompted her to ask for help?)
In the process of vulnerably entering a space in which she had no prior success and no expertise, she discovered another delightful facet of the principle of creation, which was shortly thereafter confirmed by the words of two senior Church leaders. “[I]f we wanted to keep our creativity alive and our spirits growing, we need…to try utterly new things….”
“Creativity is not always about what we produce [or, I will add, what we do well]. Sometimes it is simply about whom we produce. Who would have thought power tools could be catalysts of God’s healing blessings and so much joy”? (p. 96)
I close with the words of Dieter F. Uchtdorf (for there is power in patterns!):
“[R]emember that you are spirit daughters of the most creative Being in the universe…We were created with the express purpose and potential of experiencing a fulness of joy. 4 Our birthright—and the purpose of our great voyage on this earth—is to seek and experience eternal happiness [or, as Elder Sill would say, to seek Great Experiences]. One of the ways we find this is by creating things….Creation means bringing into existence something that did not exist before—colorful gardens, harmonious homes, family memories, flowing laughter….
“The more you trust and rely upon the Spirit, the greater your capacity to create. That is your opportunity in this life and your destiny in the life to come. Sisters, trust and rely on the Spirit. As you take the normal opportunities of your daily life and create something of beauty and helpfulness, you improve not only the world around you but also the world within you.”
What will you create today? What have you created or done in the past that you can gratefully reflect upon? What do you hope to be able to create in the future?
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Here are the other bloggers’ links for this week’s reading. (As a note, we’re each engaging these talks in our own way, and sometimes we may not always all agree re: our interpretations of or experiences with the talks. So links won’t always imply endorsement or complete agreement amongst ourselves, but rather, they reflect our shared desire to become more familiar with past prophets’ words.