Where We Should Go

S.P. Bailey will be guest posting at BCC for the next little while.

I had imagined myself on the Metroliner. I would catch the 4 a.m., sleep soundly to the lurch and sway of the train, and climb the gentle slope from Union Station to Capitol Hill in early morning sunlight. Here I am climbing off a smoky bus in Chinatown, now a stadium encircled by trendy shops and average Chinese restaurants.

I check my watch. I have plenty of time. My destination: the Library of Congress. A symposium on Joseph Smith. I call him an authentic religious genius. Or simply the prophet depending on my company. I missed three classes (undergraduate, history) to be here.

Arriving at the library, I pass through security and locate the men’s room. Floor to ceiling creamy white and gray marble. Iron art deco fixtures. Only missing is the man in a green velvet suit drying my hands and sweeping my shoulders with a tiny broom. I find my seat and listen to the first session. I locate a friend from home during the first break. He side hugs me and demands that I sit with him.

I eat the lunch I packed (granola bar, banana, water bottle) and explore the library. Not far from the basement auditorium of the symposium is an exhibit on Bob Hope. I spend twenty minutes querying a database–85,000 pages of Bob Hope jokes. I sit with my friend again for the afternoon session. We both pull books from our bags to wait out the two-hour break before the evening session.

Our seats are in the center a few rows back from the front. Backs to the empty stage, we stand and watch the evening crowd fill the auditorium. Many of the same people–academics and students. But others too. He is a Senator, my friend nods at a silver-haired man descending the stairs. He is a partner at a major law firm, he nods again. He runs a federal agency, he spots another. See him with the blonde? He is the CEO of a major corporation. She is his daughter. Not bad, huh? Not bad, I agree. He shrugs: she goes to my singles ward.

My friend also spots a total of four members of the House of Representatives. We snicker as one (the last to arrive) works his way to the front grinning and pumping hands. No seat of honor has been reserved for him. He frowns only briefly. The same as before, he works the crowd on his way up the other side to a seat in the rear.

Twenty-four hours later. On the bus back to the city, I think about where I am going. Academia maybe. Or law school. Or business and then an MBA. Maybe even politics? I wonder whether it matters. To God or the kingdom. To my soul. I have asked God to send me where I should go. No answer. Maybe there is no “where I should go.” No professional mission to be called on. I dread the thought of never escaping the Chinatown bus. I think again of the Metroliner. Business school, I tell myself, can’t be that bad.

Fading into sleep, I picture Joseph Smith. Did he attend the symposium? One panelist made a census of the Mormon elite–the politicians and captains of industry. If Joseph could see us now, he gushed. To what end, another panelist asked. Or maybe it was what is the point? I see him there–seated in the front row, nineteenth century pants and everything–and I try to read his face. Is the prophet impressed? What does competing at the highest levels have to do with the Restoration?


  1. I have thought about this some. For me, I am not really all that personally ambitious. Success can mean different things. If I can be a decent provider for my family’s basic financial needs – that is enough. As long as I more-or-less like my job – that is enough. I sometimes wonder if I should put more effort into being a leader at work, other than a good employee, at the sacrifice of spending more time at work and less away from it.

    I think many of us Mormons define success differently from others, which puts a ‘functionality’ on our professional goals, and a ‘necessity’ on quality family relationships. We have also (many of us) made covenants to give all our time, talents and possesions to building the Kingdom of God. Different priorities for us.

  2. S.P. Bailey says:

    Note: that is fiction. The question has been with me since law school (B.Y.U.), where professional achievement was often equated with God’s will. The notion frequently popped up that God or “the kingdom” somehow needed Mormons in white shoe law firms, corporate board rooms, and all three branches of government.

    Maybe “success” (spiritual and temporal) is our destiny. Every Mormon success could be seen as a vindication of every nasty thing that has ever happened to us. We were excluded from wealth and power. No more. Maybe now we are obligated to appreciate it–and to grab it as we can.

    On the other hand, the pursuit of “success” might squander our personal resources and impoverish our souls. Sometimes the pursuit of success looks like an attempt to save ourselves by putting on wealth and power—and the respectability that these things can buy.

    Then again, some Mormons have the capacity and desire to obtain “success.” Others do not. Same as the larger population. As a group, we are obligated to erase differences of wealth and status. For now, however, God and “the kingdom” do seem to favor and make good use of the wealthy and powerful.

    What do you think? Can we have it all? Success on their terms plus religion and culture on ours? How do these issues play out in decisions about the courses of individual lives?

  3. Splendid offering S. P. I look forward to more.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    S.P., I’m a little confused. When you say “that is fiction,” does that mean the entire vignette of your trip to the Library of Congress symposium is fictional? If not, what is the antecedent you intended for “that”?

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh, and my apologies for not mentioning your poems in my BYU Studies thread. I didn’t make the connection between the full name in the journal and the abbreviated version you use here.

  6. S.P. Bailey says:

    J: thanks!

    Kevin: both narrator and narrative are mostly invention. An idea I had between sessions at the symposium.

  7. I think as Joseph was so roundly rejected by Washington he’d look at the Symposium and mutter, “a bit late, fellas.”

  8. Since Amtrak came up with the Acela Express [sic], I don’t think they run the Metroliner anymore. Maybe that’s why you couldn’t take it.

  9. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the David O. McKay story when he visited a castle in Scotland while serving a mission and read the enscription carved in the keystone of the doorway, “”Whate’er thou art, act well thy part.” As has been stated, success is defined individually and means something different to each person. I think following the advice of the enscription is all that we need to do to find happiness, whatever it is we are doing. I think Joseph would agree with that.

  10. S.P. Bailey says:

    Mark B.: The Metroliner (much cooler than Acela) was running at the time of the symposium.

  11. Well, son of a gun, S.P. Who’d a thought they were running two non-fast express trains on the NYC-DC run.

  12. Career success does carry a strong sense of spiritual baggage within the church for men. The official uniform of church leadership is roughly the same as the traditional uniform of the successful businessman. People who are able to devote their lives to the gospel usually can because they have been financially successful.

    I find this issue to be the one that alienates me the most from other men in the church. When I decided to be a school teacher, I consciously accepted modest pay and a lack of prestige for stability, long holidays and what I describe as idealistic comfort. I have rarely regretted this decision. But as a result, I haven’t developed some of the competitive qualities, communication style or language of business success that many men in the church use.

    For instance, I often find the discussion of growth in the church to be more based on a business model than a spiritual model. I recently sat through a ward council that had three powerpoint presentations with charts and graphs, examining statistical trends in the ward. Likewise, the missionary mantra — success comes through dedication and hard work (rather than spiritual guidance) — strikes me as more cultural than scriptural.

  13. S.P. Bailey says:

    Thank you for your comment. I have wondered what would happen to church discourse and leadership if more farmers, public school teachers, skilled laborers, etc., etc., broke into upper church management.