Beaches and Footprints

Sam Brown is an historian, scholar, author and medical doctor. His latest work, First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith In Light of the Temple is now available, and is a publication of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. We published an excerpt from the book a couple of weeks ago and are happy to offer another now.

We often remind our adolescents and young adults that they will need to stand on their own, that they will need a testimony that can withstand separation from their parents. And it’s true that our attachment to Church and gospel must be stronger than the vagaries of young adulthood. There must be within us something more than just conformity to whatever people around us say. But we must not believe that our walk of faith is solitary. We must be able to experience commitment to true principles and to the people of Zion that can resist mocking voices or temptations of the flesh. But we should not thereby forget that God and the Holy Ghost generally speak to us in the context of our relationships with the Saints. Our lives are deeply blessed by the people who carry the Spirit to us at times of great sadness or anxiety.

There is a famous American story about a vision in which a man sees his life in review, matched with two pairs of footprints on a beach—one belonging to himself, and the other to the Lord.[1] During the hardest times of his life, the man sees only a single set of footprints. When the man asks Christ why the second set of footprints is missing at the times of greatest trial, as if Christ had abandoned him when it mattered most, Christ explains, “It was then that I carried you.” I have heard this story countless times, and I acknowledge that it has been precious to some who struggle. But the core of this sentimental story is misleading. While there is no doubt that Christ will indeed carry us in our lives and is truly the author of our salvation, we ought to be skeptical about this modern tale. How could a person’s life story be told with only one set of human footprints? The Mormon version of that visionary beach would have so many footprints that it would be hard to find undisturbed sand. There would be parents and siblings, friends and neighbors, visiting and home teachers, the Relief Society presidency, the bishop and his counselors, even sometimes the young women and young men of our wards and neighborhoods. Their footprints would be all over our beach. At times of trial, the footfalls may become a stampede, the sand bearing the marks of an earnest crowd of Saints carrying us forward.

Those of us blessed to be free of mental illness should realize that we will be called on to carry others, that it will often be our footprints that stand out in the beaches of other people’s lives. We should cherish those opportunities. We all of us have different routes and contexts and settings for our lives. For those of us whose networks are dysfunctional, for whom friends and family and ward communities offer pain instead of solace, we can hope for the influence of God and Holy Ghost, and we can seek for others to serve and to be served by. Those of us who are well need to acknowledge that those who suffer may have lost their natural connection to God through the ravages of mental illness.

[1] The story is also painfully controversial—many people claim to be its author and have waged legal battles over copyright and profits.

Comments

  1. Snarky as it is, I can’t help but post this here: http://bit.ly/1ylfwpG

  2. Sam, this is fantastic! I can’t wait to read the entire book.

  3. I hope that this is just taken out of context and the entire book isn’t this dismissive of people with mental illness.

    “Those of us blessed to be free of mental illness should realize that we will be called on to carry others, that it will often be our footprints that stand out in the beaches of other people’s lives.”

  4. “But Lord, during the hardest times of my life, why was there only one set of footprints?”
    “Because,” he replied, “Sand People always ride single-file, to hide their numbers.”

  5. Julla, I noticed that apparent problem after I posted this excerpt. It’s from a section devoted to discussing mental illness and talking about the special challenges people with mental illness face within a Church community like ours and the ways that the church body needs to be able to be responsive to their needs rather than dismissive. To make it fit as an excerpt, I pulled it out of context without noticing that introductory clause pointing to the context of the section. Sorry for giving the wrong impression. Readers who have struggled with mental illness have told me that the book has been a big positive for them.

  6. it's a series of tubes says:

    Sebastian wins the internet for today.

  7. Juliathepoet: Sam paid special attention to mental illness in the book. The excerpt might not convey it well, but that is a topic of special interest to me and I paid close attention as I edited. I hope people find it useful in that regard.

  8. I would love to be in a ward where I was supported and loved. Sometimes people are so busy fulfilling temporal needs that those with spiritual or emotional needs are left behind.

  9. Well here we go again, I am a devout Mormon, and one of my biggest issues with this “line of thinking” is what it takes away from they Savior. His footsteps are the only footsteps that matter. It does not matter how many other footsteps are on the beach with us, if his footsteps are not on the beach, we are lost. Without his footsteps there is no atonement. He is the only footsteps that can carry us to the celestial kingdom. Even with great parent’s, family, and friends, they will can and will fail us at times. The saviour will never fail us.

  10. David Spencer says:

    I have never lliked the poem Footprints in the Sand. GOOGLE butt prints in the sand for.a better poem. Seriously!

  11. Alan Casper says:

    The true version of “footsteps in the sand” is better. Isaiah 46:1-3 tells us that he has carried us from the womb to “hoar” (gray) hairs. So there have always been one set of footprints. He has carried us the whole way. I think there will be a day that we look back on our lives and realize that only through the grace of Christ were we able to do what we did. We will give all praise and glory to Him for without Him we would have been miserable creatures and not able to even move forward at all.

  12. Hmmm … Someone completely missed the point of the parable. I often wonder why othe Christians consider us arrogant and holier than thou. Oh, thank you common consent for clearing that up for me.

  13. I agree with the individual that wrote, ” I wish I had a supportive branch (ward).” And with the person who said “this line of thinking takes away from Christ.” This is one book I won’t waste my time one. This poem has been such a source of strength to me over the years and I pretty sure I don’t have a mental illness. A devout LDS member.

  14. The world is covered with foot prints from all of us, but there is only one set of footprints that matters and that we should all follow and those are of our Father in Heaven to show us the way in life.

  15. Verna Humphries says:

    The savior commands us, ” That we should love others as ourselves “. All who help to make others lives better or the hands of Jesus Christ. Or the footprints on the sand.!

  16. Joyce Rodebush says:

    We are in a small branch and live apart from the inner circle of members. We are quote ” too far away to come see” . We do not have home or visiting teachers. We have a VT HT route that we have been given that places us driving to the outskirts of the rest of the branch to care for others. Not too far for us to drive several hundreds of miles on a limited income. Which we do by the way. Our Savior is the one that carries us so we can help with others. Parents are dead. Siblings none to not involved. Talk about lonlieness and lack of fellowship with the Saints…..its right here. Our members are so busy taking care of temporal affairs and raising their families that we are left alone. I believe in these cases the poem rings true. The only other set of footprints I see are my husbands and my own when we assist the Savior in carrying each other. I do not intend to murmer or complain but yes, certainly for me there are that one and of times two set of footprints. So I have to agree more than disagree with the statements supporting and understanding as well as experiencing this theory. Thanks for stating your side but I’ll stick with what I have come to know.

  17. David Mohr says:

    Have you considered another take? If there are only one set of footprints at times then we need to ask why we were not there also. We have been commanded to love one another as He has loved us. Therefore there should not be one set of prints at any given time. Unfortunately there are times when there are one set of prints but those times should be very far and few between. There should always be two sets minimum as we help each other along the way. One set of footprints is the default situation only and should never be a norm.

  18. Maybe Sam is suggesting that the dichotomy between one and many sets of footprints is false. In carrying each other, which we often do in groups, are we not doing the work of Christ? He can certainly carry us in our solitary moments, and we’re all grateful for the times when that happens, but I believe that his preferred method is to carry us through others, if only because He manages to bless a greater number of people that way.

    I blogged about this yesterday: https://bycommonconsent.com/2014/11/24/cultivating-the-garden-of-friendship/

    I believe that our acts of friendship and love further the work of Jesus, our ultimate lover and friend.

  19. Samuel Brown says:

    I’m sorry I didn’t realize there were these additional entries in the blog discussion. I tried to make the context for the discussion about mental illness clearer in the book talk I did at Benchmark, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dz_qReKLLKQ . In retrospect, this excerpt probably needed more context for posting on the web. I apologize for not providing better context. I did pick on this American Christian story to try to make us think anew about old ideas, though, and I’m glad that it’s encouraging some discussion and debate. I’m aware that it can be shocking because the footprints story is so familiar and for some so nourishing.

    As for the question of whether human footprints could matter on a person’s “beach” independent of Christ’s, I think it’s an important question and am grateful for the thoughtful responses. I don’t for a moment think that human footprints can or should replace those of Christ. But we as followers of Christ are called to be present with him in each other’s lives, to carry his light and spirit to other human beings. That’s the purpose of life. When we love each other we are fulfilling his commandment to us and honoring his Atonement. And we should celebrate and encourage that mutual love, concern, and regard. It is the second great commandment, right after loving God. The excerpted reflection comes in a section that is meditating on how we best as the body of Christ can serve and love people who are suffering with mental illness because mental illness can make people feel separate from Christ. Mental illness like anxiety or depression can make it seem that Christ is unavailable to the individual. At times like that, we, the members of the body of Christ, have a sacred obligation to walk with the sufferer. I believe that we are called to such service, and that type of service is what I was encouraging in this section of the book.

    As for the theology behind the notion that human beings have a role to play as the “lower lights” that shine Christ’s light in other’s lives, that is deeply and consistently Mormon from the 1830s on. It has always been a kind of heresy from the perspective of Protestants, but I don’t think we need to be ashamed of the doctrine. It’s what the temple is all about. So we will be criticized for this belief by some, perhaps many, Protestants, but I don’t think we should give up this beautiful teaching merely because it doesn’t fit with Protestant theology. At the same time, this teaching that we can be “saviors on Mt Zion” is very different from the usual notion that human beings save _themselves_. They don’t. They participate in the salvation of each other as they carry Christ’s Atonement to one another, and that process of giving themselves to Christ and to other human beings is the process by which salvation occurs.

    Joyce Rodebush, I want to honor the sacrifices you make and the difficult loneliness that can be associated with living in a setting where LDS members are few and far between. I wrote the way I did in part to encourage us as Latter-day Saints to find more time and ways to be present with and for each other. I also believe that we can be present with and serve in that sacred way people who are not LDS as well as people who are not physically immediately present with us. Christ is our Savior and our safest and most loyal friend. He calls to us, loves us and supports us (and calls for us to do likewise for others) in part through the devoted service of other people.

    Thanks, all, for the important and insightful feedback.

  20. Sam, I like the extension of the parable. I didn’t have the same reaction as some of the readers apparently did in seeing this as an attack on the original. I see it as a riff on it, an extension of it. We of course rely on Jesus in a unique way, that goes without saying. But it’s a nice way to frame the importance of friendship and charity for one another to think of those influences in our lives as “footprints in the sand.”

    I look forward to the book.

  21. I agree with the individual that wrote, ” I wish I had a supportive branch (ward).” And with the person who said “this line of thinking takes away from Christ.”

    I believe the OP does a fine job of addressing your first response while avoiding the pitfall of the second:

    While there is no doubt that Christ will indeed carry us in our lives and is truly the author of our salvation, we ought to be skeptical about this modern tale. How could a person’s life story be told with only one set of human footprints? The Mormon version of that visionary beach would have so many footprints that it would be hard to find undisturbed sand. There would be parents and siblings, friends and neighbors, visiting and home teachers, the Relief Society presidency, the bishop and his counselors, even sometimes the young women and young men of our wards and neighborhoods.

    Moreover, in Matthew 25 Jesus teaches that when we serve each other we are in fact serving Him. Far from taking anything away from the Savior, the approach advocated in the OP will actually center our lives on Him.

  22. I believe the author of this article missed the point of “Footprints in the Sand”. It is easy and misleading to misinterpret what is a wonderful message of the love and compassion of the Savior. This is a case of over analyzing as is typical of many who cannot see the simplicity of the Saviors love.

  23. Thanks to Sam for this terrific new perspective on a familiar parable. I can’t wait to read the full book! It is amazing to me how sharp some of the reactions on here have been. I haven’t noted even a trace of contention from Sam’s perspective, and I am extremely grateful for the measured, meek, and charitable responses he has offered in response to critics. Publishing online to an unseen and somewhat unknown audience is a daunting prospect. I would hope that we as saints would be able to read and react charitably to those who bravely and graciously offer up to us their thoughts.

  24. If there’s anything Mormons know how to do, it’s build a village. My mom (who isn’t a Mormon) came to visit shortly after I moved to the Northeast, and after meeting several people offering to watch my kids and help unpack or bring us dinner, she asked me incredulously, “Did you really just meet all these people??”

    I think all of us (Mormon and non) have many, many sets of footprints in our lives. But I can say that as a convert, I’m more conscious of the need to be involved in helping others than I was before.

  25. Samuel Brown says:

    Thanks for those great comments, Jenny. And for the salute, Walker.

  26. Sir, with all due respect I believe you have missed the point of this poem. I believe your message is one of service but you do not need to attack a this poem to get that across. You also do not need to discount the mentally ill. They can do more good than you could ever hope to understand. If you wish to hear more of my side of things please see: http://redsopinions.weebly.com/?fb_action_ids=916353841708048&fb_action_types=weeblyapp%3Ashare.
    I mean you no disrespect but I do feel as though you are attacking a large percentage of a population and you are discounting those private sacred walks we take with the Savior when no one else knows our troubles. This poem means a great deal to a lot of people. Taking it away from them is hurtful.

  27. Red, I agree with you 200%. Stated so much better than I did or could. Those private moments are when we need our Savior the very most. Unfortunately, I took the attach on this poem, which I carry in my wallet, very personally. Thank you for sharing your shared opinion in such a gracious manner.