Creation Out of Givenness

So often we get caught up in the illusion that there is something just beyond our reach that would bring us happiness, a better family situation, a better financial situation, or the end of a challenging trial. The older we get, the more we look back and realize that external circumstances don’t really matter or determine our happiness. We do matter. We determine our happiness. You and I are ultimately in charge of our own happiness.

–President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Of Regrets and Resolutions,” General Conference, 2012.
Creation out of nothing is not a biblical concept. Israelite writers understood the creation of the world to be organization out of primeval chaos. God did not create the materials from which he worked and labored and organized. God did with what he was given. Givenness is as foundational and elemental as anything else in the universe, and Mormon scriptural accounts of creation emphasize this even more dramatically.
German polymath Gottfried Leibniz proposed that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds–of all possible worlds God could have actualized, in his omnipotence and omniscience and perfect loving kindness, he made this one a reality. Most philosophers of religion have been unsatisfied with this account.  This is the best God can do? Genocides and rampant disease and the relentless suffering of innocents? Besides, nearly all of us can conceive of a better world than this one. Surely God can do the same and more.
But what if “the best of all possible worlds” really means–not that this is the best possible world that can be conceived, but rather that it’s nothing more than a recognition of the givenness of the universe? That we are surrounded by people and objects and environments not of our own making but which constitute the primordial materials of a given life, the only materials with which we have to work, in which we have to really make a life? In this sense, that which is given is that which is “best” in the sense of “all that there is; only that which is.” There is nothing else beyond that which is given. There is no fantasy world that we can create out of nothing; not even God could do that. The materials we have been given are the only materials available.
But significantly–recognition of the givenness of our lives need not be mere passive acceptance of circumstance, or even fervent, Buddhist-like acknowledgment that the present is all there is. God found himself surrounded by chaos and intelligences, and yet saw fit to put forth his hand for the purpose of advancement and progress. All we have is that which is given to us. And yet, there is much we can do by way of assembling, shaping, conjoining, building from that givenness. President Uchtdorf insists that we determine our happiness–yes. But notice that his entire address is laden with awareness of the rich reality of other people, of loved ones and neighbors that we didn’t necessarily choose in the beginning and yet they are those that constitute the fabric of what is given. We determine our happiness, but our happiness is derived from a layered environment full of the givenness of others, of people, places, and things. When we try to violate this materiality by creating materials that cannot be created–out of nothing–misery, anxiety, frustration, alienation, are the results.
Moses learned that this earth was not the only one God created. Similarly, our own individual worlds are not the only ones that matter, and in fact can only be perceived as worlds in the first place because they exist in a firmament of other worlds, the worlds of others. True it is that happiness does not–cannot–exist beyond our reach, because our reach only extends to that which is given. The worlds we create are worlds fashioned from givenness.


  1. Sorry about the formatting, written from an iPad. Technologically incompetent, hopefully still halfway intelligible,

  2. “When we try to violate this materiality by creating materials that cannot be created–out of nothing–misery, anxiety, frustration, alienation, are the results.”

    Could you give an example of what you mean by this?

  3. As a clinically depressed person, I find this concept both devastatingly horrible and vaguely heartening. It’s given me a new angle to consider, anyway, thinking about givenness. Thanks for posting, Jacob.

    P.S. I can pretty much guarantee that anyone who says, “We determine our happiness” has never been clinically depressed.

  4. @Rechabite, it’s possible Brother Uchtdorf has never suffered clinical depression, but I don’t think sufferers are the target demographic in that thought. For most people, happiness and contentment are choices.
    Having an inability to feel hope or joy is a totally different problem than making yourself miserable add feeling sorry for all the better situations you are musing out on.

  5. Could he be saying that while its true we determine our happiness but what goes into that determination “is derived from a layered environment” of things that we didn’t choose but were instead given like biological factors that lead to clinical depression? So instead of viewing it as saying we simply choose to be happy or not it would mean there are actual limits to the choices we have based on what has been given?

  6. Carey,

    More or less I mean that when we try to live life or seek happiness outside of what has been given we find ourselves stymied, our efforts feel inauthentic and wrong. I think we all do this all the time, and recognizing the critical importance of the grace that is imbued in the concept of givenness is part of of the healing process. But it’s a fine line. Actually being able to see all that is given is probably a process that is a lifetime in the making. When we feel there is no hope and our circumstances are crushing us, part of the problem is likely that we haven’t yet been able to see all that is given, and therefore all the possibilities that are before us.


    My heart goes out to you. Yes, it’s an insult especially to people who struggle with recurring illness and other difficulties, who are continuously burdened with heavy, heavy burdens to say that one can make one’s own happiness. But only if we are saying that we can make happiness out of nothing or by sheer force of will, that others need not make any contribution to what is given and received. But I think that’s the larger context of President Uchtdorf’s message, that we can become happy in and through the givenness that is revealed to us, in the very act of seeing it for the first time. In this sense, he’s right that external circumstance cannot decide happiness (or any other desirable good) because external circumstance is not the given itself, it’s merely the temporary mode in which the given is or can be experienced. External circumstances shift and change all the time, but it makes no sense to say that our own internal orientation to the given must change with them. All the revealing of the given tells us is that we need not escape into a fantasy world that could never exist in order for us to come to peaceful terms with our world. Our world is all we have, and though we may assemble and create it in certain ways (and as the given is revealed over time we have more capacity to do so) there isn’t another world to run to. That’s maybe the hardest truth of them all, yet also the one that provides the most authentic healing. The materials for our healing are already with us. That doesn’t mean that healing happens all at once or that it’s easy in anyway; it simply means that redemption is here and not somewhere else.

  7. Carey,

    I would say more horizons than limits, but yes, I think what you say resonates here. The given is never anything we choose. It is always already there, constituting our world. Our choices are made of the substance of that which was given.

  8. Great post, Jacob.

    I have believed for a long time in accepting the foundational circumstances of our lives as the best they can be and in taking ownership of any change we desire, even as I know how hard that can be for those whose suffering is so much greater than my own. I also believe our 2nd Article of Faith (and the parable of the talents) addresses the “givenness” of our lives and says that we won’t be punished for not being able to do more than can be done with what we have been given.

    Rechabite, even those who are clinically depressed (or, in the case of my mother, schizophrenic) have an ability to determine their happiness to a much greater degree now than previously throughout history, even though they are more limited in their choices than many others. I have a good friend who openly talks about the pros and cons of taking medication for her clinical depression and about not being sure the positive effects outweigh the negative effects sometimes – but at least she lives in a time when she has the ability to consider the pros and cons and make a conscious choice how to try to deal best with that issue as an individual. I know others who have options available but don’t take advantage of them, and they are determining their own happiness in a very real way, as well. I can’t judge their choices in any way, since I don’t understand the pros and cons as they relate individually and don’t know the level of their own capabilities in that regard, but I am grateful that the options now are available to them.

  9. Jacob, have you considered this topic in relation to the talk, “Lift Where You Stand”?

  10. RE#6 — Seems like a perfect fitting for the serenity prayer.

  11. Givenness is a high hurdle if you want to fold in physics. Physics dictates an end to everything physical in some sense. I’m as yet unwilling to conceive of the present world as necessary just because of its physicality. Creation? I’ve puzzled a lot over what this means. But it must mean something beyond big bang expansion I think. And therefore, I think, “givenness” cannot be assigned to the physical world.

    Some have seen it as a tailored existence. I find this somewhat objectionable on other grounds, though it was apparently the position of Neal Maxwell.

  12. Jack Handley says:

    I must say how grateful I am for posts like this one, Jacob, as well as for the many other excellent posts and comments. I feel less alone with my thoughts than I did before I learned of bycommonconsent. Thank you. Thank you.

  13. What is given are the boundary conditions of life. We, who exist in the box of life, interact with the solution, which is at least partially determined by the boundary conditions. In that sense our happiness is our responsibility. Clinical depression is a nasty boundary condition, very difficult to deal with. The basic method is still the same: working with the boundary conditions to maximize our happiness, what ever that means. This is our responsibility. People can try to help, but, obviously, God needs some people like this.

    Was I depressed? As a kid I went into a blue funk each fall which lasted for months. I hated it. Finally I realized that the funk was basically like a cold and that I would get over it after a while. As soon as I realized this, when a fit of depression would come, I would accept that the fit was there but would leave. Finally, at the present, I rarely have a depressive day. This is a cognitive solution.

    Is clinical depression like chronic pneumonia? Or can you look forward to relief with the passage of time?

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