Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Of Hearts That Fail and Love That Waxes Cold

Fifth Sunday is combined Relief Society & Priesthood, and often among my favorite meetings. Last month's discussion was based in part upon the 45th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, particularly those verses speaking of men's hearts failing them and the love of men waxing cold. Similar verses can be found in  Matthew chapter 24 and Luke chapter 21. I'd always understood those verses to be speaking of the latter days and being tied to the righteousness of individuals and nations. Because of this discussion and also for recent experiences in my life and the lives of those I hold dear, I have decided there are further and deeper meanings. Recently called to serve in an Elders quorum presidency and feeling quite inadequate to the task, and reflecting upon past leadership positions, I've been considering how I can best serve, and trying to understand the hearts of those around me.

The Gospel of Luke says hearts fail for fear and for "looking after those things which are coming on the earth". I've always thought this to refer to the descriptors of the last days: abounding iniquity, famine and pestilence, earthquakes in divers places, etc. But I've started to wonder if perhaps much of it is far more subtle than that.

What causes hearts to fail? Certainly sin does, whether our own transgressions or the effects of those who transgress against us. And certainly illness and natural disasters can shake faith and cause doubt and worry to grow. They can also make us stronger. What is it that makes the difference between one person experiencing those things and falling away and another person experiencing the same events and growing stronger?

When I first joined the Church, and for many years after I saw things in a pretty much black-and-white fashion, with grey areas generally being the excuses people made because they didn't want to change. I figured people stay in bad situations because they have given up and don't have the desire to change. And then I found myself in quagmires I didn't know how to extricate myself from. I still have a tendency to think in black-and-white, which might not be an altogether bad thing, as it gives me that core belief that there is a solution to be had, if only that solution can be found and applied. Now I encourage myself to try to understand the process that got someone (myself included) to that undesirable place, and to find a remedy for the problem. I want to learn how to focus on the solution rather than what caused the problem. In short, it doesn't really matter who led the ox into the mire nor why they did it. What matters is the ox is there and feeling a bit uncomfortable and it wants out.

I do think more often than not people's hearts fail them because they have given up. But I wonder why have they given up? I believe sometimes it's simply that we become overwhelmed. And I think it's usually a multitude of little things which overwhelm us rather than a singular huge disaster. As devastating as natural disasters are, people generally rebuild and come out stronger. I think this is because survival instincts kick in and people do what is necessary to bounce back.

Why then don't those same survival instincts kick in when all those little things attack? Or are the instincts there but we push them aside because we don't feel we really need them against minor annoyances? Rhetorical question perhaps, as I haven't yet figured it out. My best guess is that we don't see the little things as chipping away at our armor. We don't recognize the danger. Remember the Jurassic Park movies? People ran from the tyrannosaurus rex because it was big and scary and obviously a threat, and the raptors were just plain mean and evil looking, so everyone ran from those as well. But those cute little chicken-sized dinos? Pfft. Whatever. No problem. Drop kick the little bugger. But suddenly were dozens of the ravenous little monsters, and the situation appeared very grave indeed.

How does love "wax cold"?. Is it like the annoying teenaged Anakin Skywalker turning into Darth Vader? Good guy turns bad? Yeah, it can be. But I think hearts can turn cold in ways which aren't strictly evil. Sin and pride and addiction can turn our hearts cold, but if cold is looked at in the sense of "lack of warmth, friendliness or compassion", then other aspects of the human experience must be looked at. Perhaps, like failing hearts, it can begin with feeling overly tired and overwhelmed, becoming consumed by the trials of life. Perhaps being overwhelmed can lead to an apathetic attitude towards others, as in "I'd like to help you, but I've got my own problems, and besides, it's your ox." Or maybe the things of the world (both good and bad) become distracting to the point where we fail to recognize the needs of others. All of these things can be defined as sins via omission rather than commission, but you have to be pretty far gone to purposefully seek the destruction of others. Hearts don't lose their warmth all at once.

Nearly a decade ago President Thomas S Monson spoke in General Conference on developing "an attitude of gratitude":

While there are some things wrong in the world today, there are many things right, such as teachers who teach, ministers who minister, marriages that make it, parents who sacrifice, and friends who help. ... We can lift ourselves, and others as well, when we refuse to remain in the realm of negative thought and cultivate within our hearts an attitude of gratitude.

Perhaps if we focus on everything which is good and virtuous and praiseworthy in our lives, and being thankful for it, we can prevent our own hearts from failing during trying times, and keep our love from waxing cold. And if we can do that, we can better reach out to others, we can restart and bring back the love to the hearts of those who have fallen away.