Friday, November 29, 2013

Giving Thanks

I had this really great idea last week that a blog post about all the things I'm grateful for would be a fantastic way to start off Thanksgiving. I figured it would not only help me feel grateful for all the great things I have, but also help me remember why I have them (or better said, thanks to who I have them). Before I had figured out what was happening Thanksgiving morning my running shoes were on my feet and I was out the door, writing forgotten, so that didn't happen quite according to plan. However, maybe it's for the best, because I've had two full days to reflect on how wonderful my life is whilst nibbling on pie and making funny faces at my niece. 

And so I present to you (in no particular order) a few of the many wonderful things that are going on in my life right now. 

  • Job: When Peggy Noonan spoke last week at a BYU forum, she said that her jobs with Presidents Reagan and Bush, Sr. were "an unmitigated blessing in her life," from which she had grown and benefited greatly. That is exactly how I feel about my job right now--it is an unmitigated blessing. It's fun, it's interesting, it's experience that will help me all my life. I can't help but be grateful for that. 
  • Roommates: Coming back from my mission, I didn't know any guys who weren't (1) still on missions of their own or (2) not going to BYU. So, I didn't put in any specific roommate requests, and got put in a random apartment at the luck of the draw. I'm grateful that my roommates are reasonably orderly, good men, who are also welcoming and accepting of the new guy. 
  • Car: I got used to taking the bus in Chile, and was ready to tackle the Utah bus system as soon as I got home. However, it turned out that I didn't have to--my beloved Mazda 626 gives me more freedom than even the bus system would have. 
  • Running shoes: My mom convinced me to get a pair of fairly decent running shoes (instead of my usual 10-dollar Walmart sneakers). I realized how much I would enjoy having them at the same time I realized that it gets really cold in the early morning (when I have time to run), and going barefoot is not a (pleasant) option. This has enabled some fairly awesome runs. 
  • Old friends: I always joked around with my mission companions that getting home would be like opening a new area--I'd have to build a friend base from the ground up, putting to use all my missionary skillz like "talk to everyone" and "ask for references." However, thanks to good old friends, it hasn't been quite like that. More like... well, like seeing old friends after two years in a foreign country!
  • New friends: I enjoy people. Meeting new people is one of my favorite past-times. God has put a lot of really cool new people into my life, people who I've learned from and whose company I have enjoyed. 
  • Studio C: I don't understand quite how it happened, but somebody got the idea in the last few years to form a clever, clean comedy group that just so happens to jive almost perfectly with my sense of humor. Win. 
  • Academic success: When I stepped into the classroom for the first math class of the semester, I had trouble remembering what a derivative was. It was scary. A few weeks ago, I actually walked out of the testing center after a math test smiling. That's a change I'm grateful for. 
  • Family, part 1: My sister and brother-in-law not only live in the same state that I do, they're only forty minutes away. I'm thankful for Sunday dinners, evening chats, and getting to play with my niece (just look at these pictures and tell me she isn't the cutest little girl in the world, will you?) almost every week. 
  • Family, part 2: In spite of a random rash of concussions this summer, the rest of my family is alive and well in Oregon, and I get to call them on the phone and talk to them any time the fancy strikes me. That's nice. 
  • Family, part 3: My cousin Kate deserves a shout-out here. She knows why she's awesome.
  • Music: Along with ward choir, playing the tin whistle on stormy nights, and random piano jam sessions, I get to sing in the BYU Men's Chorus this year. I feel privileged to spend a lot of time making (and listening to) really cool music. 
  • Prayer: Oddly enough, the interesting, challenging, and sometimes frustrating parts of life didn't stop coming when I was released as a missionary (although I will admit that they changed nature quite a bit-- stray dogs are no longer a problem). However, every time I go to my Father in prayer, He gives me His guidance, He assures me that it's going to turn out alright, and He surrounds me with His love.
  • The Book of Mormon: A lot of the time, God's guidance and assurance comes through music. However, God's most frequently-used tool to talk to me is definitely this book. I love it. It's amazing. You should read it. 
  • The Atonement: After everything else, (and before everything else, and over everything else, and through and because of and causing everything else), I am grateful that my Savior Jesus Christ came and offered His life for me. He lifts me up, redeems me, cleanses me, empowers me, and makes everything I do worthwhile. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Machiavelli, Mussolini, and Lincoln

This morning after I got out of my chemistry class, I headed over to the library to study. I was about to turn up the staircase to head to my usual 5th floor study spot, but I decided on a whim to turn down the stairs to go check out the new Reading Room on the second floor. I was pleased to find a beautiful faux fireplace, a couple of comfy couches, and a small shelf of books marked “World Classics: A Sampling of Important World Literature.”

I started looking through the World Classics, and my eye was drawn to a work that I have always wanted to read—one that has intrigued me in the same way that Stalin intrigued me in the 12th grade. That is, Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”

After reading through the introduction (by the translator) and prelude (by Mussolini), I began to think about another important political document, one whose anniversary we recently celebrated—Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I would now like to share some thoughts that I have had while comparing and contrasting the two.

“One day I happened to be informed… of the gift of a sword engraved with the saying of Machiavelli: ‘States are not maintained with words’.” Thus begins Benito Mussolini’s prelude to Nicco Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” He goes on to explain how Machiavelli’s analysis of politics really boils down to a proper understanding of human nature. Quoting several of Machiavelli’s works, he states, “One can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers.” And, “Men never do anything good unless forced to, but where liberty abounds and where there is freedom everything immediately falls into confusion and disarray.”

He goes on to explain how history, both pre- and post-Machiavellian, has given proof of these facts. He explains that the implications of man’s base nature are that government by the people cannot work, and will always result in anarchy. He finishes by saying, “Regimes based completely on consent have never existed, do not exist, and probably never will exist.”

I have to say, I really agree with Mussolini (never thought you would hear me say that, did you?). I believe that the nature of us humans is to be ungrateful, to be fickle, to lie, and to deceive. I believe this is true based on my own study of history and literature, my interactions with others, and my own heart.

However, I believe that both Machiavelli and Mussolini were ignorant of—or ignored—one crucial fact: That man is not ruled by his nature alone. We have in us a spirit, a bit of something heavenly, that is not governed by earthly rules or tendencies. That spirit is not ungrateful and fickle, but noble. It is not a liar or a deceiver; rather, it seeks truth and honesty above all else.

Inside of each man, and in larger measure inside of each country, there is a sort of struggle between these two forces—the natural and the spiritual, the carnal and the heavenly.

The fact that this struggle exists raises the question: were Mussolini and Machiavelli before him wrong when they said that democracy, or government based on consent, is simply not possible? I believe Lincoln asks this same question in his famous Address.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure…

And now I repeat Lincoln’s great interrogative. Can such a nation endure?

Yes. It can. It has.

Our nation has endured. It hasn’t endured perfectly, I’ll admit—we’ve had some bumps and bruises along the way. There may be many things about our history, and the current state of the country and its government, that we don’t agree with (and note that this is a politically neutral comment, because everyone, no matter what their political leanings, disagrees with something).

But the bottom line is that the United States of America has continued to operate under the constitution penned by the founding fathers for the last 206 years. The higher, spiritual part of us has won out over the natural part enough to keep this country alive and thriving.

In the words of Gandalf, “And that is an encouraging thought.”

Now, to return to the last part of Lincoln’s Address.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
So, that’s what it comes down to. Machiavelli, Mussolini, and Lincoln are all dead and gone now. It is up to us, each and every one of us, to make sure our spirit wins out over our nature, so that our country can have a “new birth of freedom;” to prove to Machiavelli, to Mussolini, to Lincoln, to ourselves, and to those who will come after us that our nation, conceived and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, can, and will, endure.

Non-MLA citations:
“The Prince,” Machiavelli. Translation by George Bull.
“The Gettysburg Address,” Abraham Lincoln.