Sunday, January 24, 2010

What a Mess!

My wife often jokes about the physical state of her work room. Like me, she is very project oriented. We are never bored because as soon as we finish one creative project, there are a dozen other things we want to do that are jockeying in the queue. Liz’s room is filled with tangible evidence of her process. You might say that everything there is “in process.” But that’s okay. Whether it is card making, scrapbooking, stamping, sewing, or cross-stitching, she does beautiful work, and she is not afraid to make a mess.

We used to share the workroom together. Her half of the room had files and boxes of photos, paper, scissors, pens, and important pieces of history that were waiting to be absorbed into a well crafted scrapbook. Liz also had drawers and bins of fabric, patterns, and notions such as zippers, ribbon, and buttons. My half had a different mess.

For about ten years I spent a great deal of my spare time working on a supposed epic novel with a beautiful heroine as the main character. My half of the room was filled with stacks of notes, folders of pictures, reference books, and sculptures. The walls were covered with sketches, story boards, illustrations, maps, and ideas. I had developed histories, family lines, and cultural definitions. I was completely immersed in plot and character development. Well… I was immersed whenever I entered the room. It was perfect for that purpose. I was surrounded by mess and process. The two went hand in hand and allowed me to learn faster than any other place. Now, however, the room is only used by my wife, and my process has been cleaned up.

The story is something that I am very passionate about. Someday I hope to get back to it. But, if I don’t, I will still be grateful for the work that I did there because the process was so valuable to me. It was a laboratory for thought that afforded me the opportunity to test out lots of ideas, both fictitious and real.

At a point in my life where circumstances changed for me, I found that I needed to put my interests on hold and I cleaned up my mess. While my hobby held my attention, my family and other obligations needed my time. So I carefully took my work down and shelved it in boxes. Certainly, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but I do not regret it a bit. I would make the same decision if presented to me again and again. I realized then that there is an appropriate time for messes especially when they afford a process.

In contrast to the work room, our living room is much different in character. I read there, I pray there, and it affords me a different opportunity to focus without clutter. It contains possessions that define our family. In addition to comfortable seating, there are books, paintings, photographs, and musical instruments. This room has stricter rules of what is acceptable. Yes, from time to time this room may get messy, but I do not allow it to be so for very long because it is my sanctuary. When it gets messy, it no longer seems like mine and I feel like an outsider. It is not a museum or showcase, but the living room is a place to live in. I have found that to be more easily done when there is no mess there.

It is worth considering, and recognizing, that not all messes are bad. Some messes can be helpful, and some may be a detriment. Some we can control, and others control us. I believe that when we are able to act and define our messes, we are much better off than if we are acted upon by our messes because they limit our decisions. This is another example of how the evidence at hand comes back to intent. Similarly, while a process may be messy, there is a difference between clean messy and dirty messy. Consider the following.

In Mark chapter 7, a group of Pharisees and scribes found fault and criticized Jesus because his disciples ate bread without washing their hands. They stated that it was the tradition of the elders to wash, not only their hands, but also their cups, pots, brazen vessels, and tables, or they would not eat. Jesus’ response was quite poignant as he quoted Isaiah the prophet.

“He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. … Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.” (Mark 7:6-7,9) Jesus spoke not only of hands and dishes, but of commandments that the Pharisees professed to uphold and yet broke them. He returned criticism because they were focused on lesser things instead of the things of God.

Jesus continues, “There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him, which is food; but the things which come out of him; those are they that defile the man, that proceedeth forth out of the heart. If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 7:15-16, JST Mark 7:15)

When His disciples could not understand Jesus’ teachings, he explained, “whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly….” He then lists a number of sins that proceed from the heart as evil thoughts and actions and states, “All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.” (Mark 7:18-19, 23)

Perhaps it is a stretch to talk of the messes that occur in work rooms and living rooms, and then talk of the heart. Yet the heart also has rooms in which we store and keep things. Some things we lock up, and some things we share openly. I believe the heart to be more sacred, thus making an examination of the heart more important as to which messes are process and which may be detriments.

There may be times when our hearts and minds, both, are confused. They seem to be cluttered with information, circumstances, and the cry for decisions. A true disciple of Christ will not take such decisions lightly, or dismiss them too quickly. It is important for us to study them out carefully in the light of Christ so that we can make an appropriate decision.

Mormon taught us how to examine the clutter of confusion that can exist internally. “For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God. ... And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know the light by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see that ye do not judge wrongfully; for with that same judgment which ye judge ye shall also be judged.” (Moroni 7:16-18)

The key to whether the clutter in our hearts is just mess or process depends how the clutter got there. If I am confused solely because I lack wisdom and am unsure of my course, the clutter would suggest that I am on the cusp of taking a leap forward in my process – the process of becoming like Father. I may have an opportunity to grow if I am prepared to deal with the situation. On the other hand, if my heart is cluttered because I have judged incorrectly in the light of Christ, and have chosen that which is wrong, then my actions will testify against me. This would suggest that I welcomed clutter into my heart and chose mess for mess’s sake. This is the largest difference between sin and mistakes. One is deliberate, the other inadvertent.

Dallin H. Oaks of the Twelve Apostles taught that while both sins and mistakes can harm us, mistakes need correction but sins require repentance. They are not the same and do not require the same process to fix. Many of our decisions can be carefully weighed against the measure of bad, good, better, and best. Elder Oaks said, “For most of us, most of the time, the choice between good and bad is easy. What usually causes us difficulty is determining which uses of our time and influence are merely good, or better, or best. Applying that fact to the question of sins and mistakes, I would say that a deliberately wrong choice in the contest between what is clearly good and what is clearly bad is a sin, but a poor choice among things that are good, better, and best is merely a mistake.” (“Sins and Mistakes,” Ensign, Oct 1996, 62) Some of the clutter in our hearts is there deliberately, but has been invited by mistake.

Usually walking into a messy room is a choice; we see what the room is like before we enter. There are times in life, however, where we find ourselves in a confusing situation and we are left to wonder, “How did I get in such a mess?” The arrival at comprehension is an odd experience, as if we have just awoken from sleep walking.

If not all messes are bad, then understanding what kind of mess we are in can be very helpful. Whether it is by choice, by mistake, or due to conditions beyond our control, it is important for us to assess so that we can determine the best course for action. Consider these questions. How do I feel about the mess? Does it feel out of control or is the mess manageable? What do I plan to do with the mess? Does it bother me? Why? Am I apathetic towards the mess, and is it easier to pretend that it’s not there than to deal with it? Do I ever think, “I should clean this up,” without the intent of actually changing or doing anything about it? Would it make any difference if someone could help me through it, or help me clean it up?

If we feel in control, we will likely have a more positive attitude towards the situation. If we can get someone to help or encourage, it may be enough to change our attitude. If we recognize what we are up against, and have a plan of action, we can better deal with the messes life delivers at our feet.

When I watch Liz make dough to bake some bread, I observe that her process is very, very messy. She spreads oil over the counter to keep the dough from sticking. She grinds wheat to make flour which causes fine dust to spread. She prepares the dough with a mixer and then kneads it with her hands. Every time, however, the counter resumes to a smooth as glass condition without a trace of the mess. Liz is in control of the process and she has gotten very fast. You can’t make bread without making a mess. At the same time, it is hard to enjoy the bread unless you have a clean place to eat it. There is a place for both.

In my line of work as an architect, I spend a lot of time on construction sites to review progress. As I observe work that is being done, I see a lot of mess, and yet it isn’t. To the inexperienced it may look like chaos. To the general contractor who is responsible for the work, there is a process by which separate materials are put together to create a refined product. Watching a design take shape from seemingly nothing is always amazing. It is very rewarding. Sometimes we have to trust that Father is both the architect who has a master design for our lives, and He is the general contractor that is directing the work, making something refined and beautiful out of seemingly nothing. Life may get dusty, but if we put our faith in His plan, things will turn out better than we can possibly imagine.

I have found that it is often when I am immersed in a messy situation that I am capable of doing the most work. If I am surrounded by mess and chaos, I begin to despair. But, if my mess is full of process and I feel in control, then I can often learn faster than I will in any other place.

I’m glad that most often my work period includes a time to clean up. Much can be learned and understood when we clean up the rooms in our homes and the rooms in our hearts. Even in circumstances when, like my interest in writing a novel, I find that it is time to put something good aside for something better or best, I have a greater appreciation of the process, and I can enjoy a place that is swept clean of distraction. Many truths are formulated during the process. Then those same truths distill and refine when the mess is gone.

Referring back to the example of the Savior with the Pharisees, and the measurement of value described by Elder Oaks, we need to be very careful that we give our best attention to the appropriate messes. If we focus on less important distractions when there are more important issues at hand, we may be guilty of having an incorrect focus. When we decide it is time to clean up our messes, it can be possible to have a clean house and yet have cluttered relationships. We may find that we are perfectionists at cleaning messes in our homes, but not our hearts. Certainly I am not advocating that we have messy homes. I do believe we need to keep our priorities clear and our focus correct.

Both our hearts and our homes have appropriate work rooms and living rooms. We have places for messes and places for serenity. When some of those messes spread and start to consume our peace, we should remember that we are the offspring of God. Father has created us in His image. He has given us the potential and the power to become like Him. We do so when we begin to see the messes for what they are and we act upon them rather than letting them act upon us. Fortunately, when we are in over our heads in mess, Father can help. We can ask Him humbly in prayer and He will respond. Much like my own children who often make mistakes and messes, both, that are larger than they can manage, a simple “please” is usually enough to get my help. Father loves us much, much more than we are capable of loving our own children. He will help take care of our messes.

Because our lives are often messy and a work in progress, it helps to have a reminder that this is by design and we have no need to fear. The exception is when we choose to make messes for mess’s sake. Keeping work in the work room, and living in the living room has worked well for me. Note that I didn’t mention my garage. There is another work in progress, but I’ll leave that for another day.

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