Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had some before-school-starts conversations with my colleagues in the English department. One of them said that his best students had always been from Southern Idaho. “Nobody had ever told them there were things they couldn’t do,” he said. “So they’d just do them. Of course, that has changed. Television and the internet changed all of that.”
The second conversation happened while I was doing something with my documentary on Black Mormons. A colleague dropped by and started remembering his own college days. He had been dating a woman who had just learned that she carried some African ancestry. She realized what this meant: Her sons wouldn’t be able to hold the priesthood. My colleague teared up as he recalled this. “There was so much I didn’t know—though it was all around me,” he said, “I was well wadded in stupidity.” That last quote is from George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”
The visitation—an earthly one—happened within the past hour. A former student of mine, one of those iconoclastic, maddeningly creative, brilliant ones who don’t really fit the perceived BYU mold, dropped by. I reached out to hug him, and he backed off. “I can’t,” he said. I knew immediately what had happened. “You’re going on a mission?” “Yes.” He will enter the MTC tomorrow—slightly older than those he’ll be joining—and I’ll get to see him when I have lunch there on Sunday.
I agree with the first colleague I mentioned that television and the internet have changed the world, and probably changed students from Southern Idaho and Utah (though I must say, the missionaries we’ve gotten in our MTC branch from Southern Idaho still have an amazing work ethic). And I agree with the second colleague that most of us, especially in our youth, are “well wadded with stupidity.” But my hope surges when a brilliant young man, such as the one who just came by, chooses to give two years of his life to an effort so overwhelming as the missionary program. If he serves well (and I have no doubt that he will), he will paradoxically become LESS wadded with stupidity. That is a paradox, because his focus will be so narrow for two years—“Preach My Gospel”, the missionary handbook, and his scriptures. (That narrowness is, of course, narrow in the same way a mustard seed is narrow.) In true service, our hearts open to other people, and we learn to hear still voices and small cries. Our stupidity thins as we open ourselves to worlds beyond the one we immediately inhabit. In my former student’s case, this will happen in Japan. I also hear from missionaries serving in Africa, Europe, and Canada. One became terribly ill during his first week, as he ate food his stomach instantly rejected (monkey, for example). Yet his letters now speak only lovingly of the people he is serving. And I use the word SERVING with consideration. Labor in the gospel must get beyond the self and to the hearts of others, so that we participate in their pain and in their joy.
Yes, television and the internet have made a difference. And many young men and women will leave the Church as they discover difficult histories their little worlds have not prepared them for–all available for research on the internet, and sometimes on television. But if they choose to “go into all the world and preach [the] gospel”—and if they serve well, the picture adjusts. The difficulties cease to be the filter for their new, increasingly independent thoughts. These problems don’t go away, but can be seen through a forgiving lens, which recognizes not only human foibles but God’s grace and relentless progress—progress sometimes as slow and wondrous as “hearing the grass grow.”