From Neal A. Maxwell’s book, ‘Helping Change to Occur’

Learning rests on desire. In Chapter 32 of Alma we read that even if we can do “no more than desire to believe” we must let this desire “work” in us. Desire, however, is something that cannot be supplied by the leader. It must come from within and when desire is not present the limitations of the situation are severe, indeed.

Learning can occur at times in the midst of dissonance and discord. We must face the implications of this, too. While we may desire tranquility and constancy in our environment it is, nevertheless, true that often—though not always—real learning occurs when dissonance is present. Mortality itself is a situation in which we are not purposely insulated from reality but must daily face ourselves and a real world.

Among the subtle opportunities of Church life is the chance to work out a better solution with someone with whom we have disagreed. Because the work in which we are engaged is the Lord’s work, this sometimes produces real tension between sincere advocates, for instance, of two different courses of action in connection with fund raising to build a new chapel. When the decision is made favoring the one view, it is easy for the other party to feel rejected simply because of the strength of his commitment to the Church. We can use such opportunities to explore relationships that would go unexplored because otherwise neither party feels a need to know the other party any better until difficulty arises. In the midst of honest differences (in the context of brotherhood) the need for each party to “set things right” as between them can be more powerful in pushing the individuals toward each other. Often our fastest friendships are those which emerge from some initial dissonance or rivalry.

Change is aided significantly when there are available models after whom we may pattern our lives. Knowing that someone else has coped successfully with problems similar to those we face is an important thing. Learning also requires feedback which can help us learn from our failures as well as our successes. Learning is certainly facilitated, additionally, by a healthy self-image which permits an individual to cope with change and crises in self-esteem.

There are things which consistently block learning and change. If we are shielded from stimuli, we cannot grow, nor can we grow in our self-esteem and in our capacity to cope with the challenges of life. This will not be easy in the security-bent societies about which E.E. Cummings spoke “when serpents bargain for their right to squirm . . .  and rainbows are insured against old age.

Change and improvement are also blocked by the tendency many of us have to seek early, easy answers to problems. Pat solutions are usually shortcuts which really don’t take us anyplace but seem to. One early, easy, and wrong answer was given by a status-full individual who was very anxious to be a leader, when he said ages ago: “I will redeem all mankind that one soul shall not be lost.”

Richard L. Evans has noted that often we do not distinguish between matters which involve preference and those which involve principle. There is a clear need for us to act unequivocally where principles are involved. But, upon reflection, most of us would find that many of our differences with others center around preferences, not principles at all! We can easily exhaust ourselves and use up much good will while dealing with the differences which occur around preferences, so that relationships are raw by the time an issue involving principle arises.

Change and improvement are also blocked by an inordinate fear of the unknown and the risks of change. This kind of fear can immobilize us: it can block us from accepting challenges that might permit us to grow. Significantly, the pioneers did not look over their shoulders out of nostalgia for Nauvoo; they moved into the unknown—but guided by God.

Change and improvement are also blocked when we compartmentalize our lives so that learning in one part of our life does not affect another portion. We are then not a whole person but a series of compartments, not only ideologically, but in terms of our feelings and our behavior. People know only parts of us. This can produce rank hypocrisy. Change and improvement cannot occur, either, when we resist feedback and its implications for us in terms of our need to change and to improve as a whole person.

Finally, suppression and rationalization will keep us from changing and growing even though we are often not aware of this form of self-delusion. As A.E. Houseman has observed: “The house of delusions is cheap to build, but drafty to live in.” ~Neal A. Maxwell, Helping Change to Occur (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967), 46-48


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