I turned thirty a few months back. To me, the thirties have always represented the time when a person needs to be very serious about life. You can be forgiven for a bit of tomfoolery and stupidity in your twenties, but the thirties are game time. So I have been doing quite a bit of introspecting lately and haven’t been happy with much of my findings. I’m just nowhere near where I want to be as a person right now. And not just in the sense where you hear the most saintly people you know say that they are far from perfect, but in the sense of “wow, I am truly just not a good person in some important ways.” I have started looking at the best people I know and wondering how they become that way. I know the changing power of the Atonement is the ultimate answer, but we have to take certain steps ourselves to activate the Atonement. So how do these people find the requisite desire and strength to put forth all that effort, which the Atonement then magnifies?
It was in the midst of this pondering when the dad of one of my Primary students approached me and said “Hey, Christian, I’ve been wanting to thank you for being Susie’s teacher. I can tell from the way she talks about your class that you guys are really great teachers and are having an impact on her. Thanks so much for all you do.” I don't really ever talk with this guy, so it took some thoughtfulness to approach me and say what he did. And it wasn’t said in the way that young women who hate each other exchange compliments.
“Heeeeyyy Britelynn, Oh. My. Darling. Hair!” (Turns back to her husband and makes finger in the mouth ‘gag me’ signal.) “Oh my gooooosh Brinley, girl that is cutest bag ever! Is that from Anthro?" (Turns to her husband and pantomimes a fake dry heave.)
No, this was the most honest kind of compliment you can get, which is hard to square with the fact that I haven’t been the greatest teacher. My lessons are hastily prepared, often times during sacrament meeting, and for the most part I feel ill-equipped to deal with the kids who are difficult. And besides, his daughter is perfect and would find a way to learn if Cain himself were teaching the class. But none of that stopped this guy from finding a sincere way to compliment me. And he isn’t one of those talented schmoozer types either. He’s just a really good, sweet, pure-hearted dude. Of course I can’t really see into his soul (maybe he pinches kittens while listening to Nine Inch Nails), but after watching him for a few years, I strongly suspect he’s a very, very good person.
Anyway, when he thanked me for being Susie’s teacher I again asked the question that had been on my mind these last few months:
“Geez, how does someone become that good?”
Then the answer came to me:
“By making tens of thousands of really good decisions over the course of years and years and years.”
Small choices, like “I’m going to be patient with my child who is being a ratface,” and “I’m going to choose not to be annoyed with the comment my wife just made” and “I’m going to forego eating this entire bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that I bought for my Primary class. In one day.”
Sure, a few of us are probably born with more virtuous dispositions than others, but it really struck me that this guy is who he is because of all the tiny things he decided to think/say/do or not to think/say/do throughout his life. Hundreds of them every day. I believe he has made the better choice so many times that it has become second nature to him—first nature even. He wasn’t just thinking/saying/doing great things anymore;he was those great things. He had become them. They were the matter that composed his soul, just as what you’ve eaten the last ten years is literally the matter composing your body (which is why I have an arm and three toes entirely composed of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups).
I want to be like this man. I’m going to focus hard on making the right little decisions populating each day. I’ll mess up a lot, of course, but I won’t get down on myself. And hopefully after years and years of this continuous effort, I will be the sum total of those good choices. Then they’ll make me Stake President and I'll be rich and famous!
Stop it! Stop it!
OK, that was my first slip up. No problem. That’s OK. Anyway, I’m going to make more great little decisions for the next few years. And maybe suddenly I’ll find myself feeling pure love toward some goofball in my ward and I’ll walk up to that goofball and pay him a sincere compliment.
Christian Bell lives in Albuquerque, NM. He blogs with two of his brothers at www.dontdodumbthings.com
Photo courtesy of Paul Buckley