I’m usually a little uncomfortable when we discuss the evils of the world, as happens in Teachings of Lorenzo Snow lesson #21. Its not that I don’t see evil in the world, but its that I also see good there. And the optimist in me even sees some progress—the world getting better than it was.
The following poem makes me wonder if the whole dichotomy of the world v. the kingdom of God should be seen in another way. Is the problem not, in part, that the world doesn’t see life from an eternal perspective? Is the world focusing on the here and now, on real circumstances and in the process forgetting and frustrating the better ideals that the gospel promotes? Or is it vice versa in some way? Can we even draw a neat line between the world and the kingdom of God, putting all the world on the side of evil?
The following poem is from long-time Relief Society President Emmeline B. Wells. Like her better known predecessor, Eliza R. Snow, Wells was an accomplished poet and author. She was also tremendously active in Mormon Utah, serving as the second editor of the Woman’s Exponent, taking over soon after it was founded and running it until it was replaced by the Relief Society Magazine. She also ran the Relief Society’s grain storage program (a predecessor of today’s Welfare program) from 1875, and served as a voice for the woman’s suffrage movement in Utah. She began her service as president of the Relief Society in 1910, at age 82. She died three weeks after she was released in 1921 at age 93.
Real and Ideal
by Emmeline B. Wells
- At times sweet visions float across my mind,
- And glimpses of the unknown bright and fair,
- Where all the objects seem so well-defined—
- Tasteful in color, and in beauty rare,
- That I must pause, and think if they be real,.
- Or only what the poets call ideal.
- I well remember when a little child,
- I had these same strange, wand’ring fancies;
- And I was told my thoughts were running wild,
- That I must not indulge in such romances,
- Wasting in idle dreams the precious hours,
- Building air-castles and gazing from the towers.
- E’en then I seemed to familiar things,
- Pertaining to a dim, uncertain past;
- And to my recollection faintly clings,
- A sense of something, which the shadows cast,
- That showed me what my future life would be,
- A prophecy, as ’twere, of destiny.
- There was an intuition in my heart,
- An innate consciousness of right and wrong,
- That bade me choose a wiser, better part,
- Which, in rough places, helped to make me strong;
- And though my path was oft bereft of beauty,
- Still urged me on to fulfil ev’ry duty.
- O, happy childhood, bright with faith and hope,
- Enchantment dwells within thy rosy bowers,
- And rainbow tints gild all within thy scope,
- And youth sits lightly on a bed of flowers,
- His cup of happiness just brimming o’er,
- Unconscious of what life has yet in store.
- What glowing aspirations fill the mind—
- Of noble work designed for man to do!
- What purity of purpose here we find—
- What longings for the beautiful and true;
- Ere know we of the toil, the grief and woe;
- Or dream that men and women suffer so.
- Though all along life’s weary, toilsome way,
- We meet with disappointments hard to bear,
- Yet strength is given equal to our day,
- And joy is of’nest mixed with pain and care;
- But let us not grow weary in well-doing,
- Still persevere the upward path pursuing.
- Thus ever struggle on, ‘mid doubts and fears,
- While changing scenes before our gaze unfold,
- Till, through the vista of long, weary years,
- We see heav’n’s sunshine,thro’ its gates of gold;
- And feel assured it is an answering token,
- Aye! though our earthly idols have been broken.
- Tho’ those we’ve cherish’d most have been untrue,
- And fond and faithful ones have gone before,
- Still let us keep the promises in view,
- Of those who’re pleading on “the other shore,”
- Whose tender messages are with us yet,
- The words of love, we never can forget.
- And while we muse and ponder, shadows fall,
- And a sweet spirit whispers, “Peace, be still;”
- What of the past—’tis now beyond recall;
- The future, we with usefulness may fill.
- Yet sometime, we shall find in regions real
- Those dreams fulfilled we only term ideal.
The Contributor, July 1881, p. 313.
Some readers may see connecting this poem with the idea of loving God more than the world as a stretch. I don’t think so. In discussing the real and the ideal Wells runs into some of the same problems that we, in our quest to return to our Heavenly Father do. We too must not waste “in idle dreams the precious hours / Building air-castles and gazing from the towers” but we also need those things that “showed me what my future life would be, / A prophecy, as ’twere, of destiny.” Doesn’t the world also sometimes have us wasting time, but somehow missing our potential? Isn’t a large part of what we mean by “the world” the fact that it simply distracts us from eternal things?
When Wells talks of “An innate consciousness of right and wrong, / That bade me choose a wiser, better part” can she mean anything but the influence of the Spirit in our lives, as it helps us deal with the “disappointments hard to bear” of the world?
I don’t know that we can easily put either the ‘real’ or the ‘ideal’ into the boxes of ‘evil’ or ‘good,’ just like it is hard to claim that the ‘world’ is all one or the other. It is more complex than that. It seems to me that loving God more than the world is not about simply rejecting everything in the world as evil, but instead it is about using, as Wells suggests, our “innate consciousness of right and wrong,” to “choose a wiser, better part”—that part that leads us back to our Heavenly Father.
The world is not progressing…and neither are we.
We are both being brought to our ends. Look in the mirror.
Sure, technology is advancing. But the human heart has not advances one bit. And “the wages of sin are death.”
But Christ Jesus knows this about us and has decided to love and forgive us anyway.
Now that is Hope we can count on.
Kent, I don’t think Wells was calling building air-castles wasteful. Rather, those around her called it that, when in the end they are proven wrong, as the ideal is proven real. She recalled something that they in their practicality discounted, that they exaggerated and called wasteful.
Steve, have you ever thought about what the “end of the world” is in terms of the definition of “end” as “purpose?” It’s a radically different way of interpreting things. I like it.
Hmm, Steve, I’m not sure why a Lutheran like yourself feels he needs to weigh in on Mormon doctrine. Of course you don’t agree. While you are certainly welcome to comment, I’m not sure how your comment helps at all.
I will say that I think your comment kind of misses the point. What about the Red Cross? Is it evil also?
Or Doctors without Borders? evil?
What about the many, many other charitable organizations, do they also show no advance in human beings? Nothing good there?
I’m not even sure that “the human heart has not advanced one bit” as you claim. I’m not sure how we would measure it (which means neither of us really knows), but it sure looks to me like we have a lot of good people in the world, perhaps more than ever.
It seems to me that the point is that even if the world in general is evil, there are parts of the world that are good and progressing.
SWM, you may be right. But I think, objectively, that some building air-castles is wasteful — at least when it doesn’t or has no possibility of leading to action. That’s more along the lines of what I meant than any interpretation of what Wells meant. I probably could have worded it better, though.
Steve Martin, compare today with the first half of the twentieth century. Those were fifty years in which nationalism, socialism, and imperialism seized upon the minds of millions upon millions of humans across Europe, Africa, and Asia and brought about deaths of millions. I think we the general human heart has progressed greatly since those times.
I empathize with your sentiments Steve M. I’m not any beyond the Lord Himself knows all our hearts and could make such a statement. I do think that we have gained greatly in many areas, while in others we have greatly regressed. Nevertheless, scripture in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and from contemporary prophets encourage us to be positive, cheerfully do all things within our power to bring good to the world, all while anticipating the happy return of the Lord to the Earth. As the Savior said in John 16:33, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
Edit: “[…] I’m not *sure* any […]
This century is young. I’m quite sure that the strung of increasing carnage will not be broken.
I agree. We should do all we can to bring “good” (we always don’t know) to the world. Realizing all the while that this world will come to an end, and we also.
I have wonderful discussions with my Mormon friends about Mormon doctrine and orthodox Christian doctrine.
I do think it’s helpful to both camps to hear other perspectives.
Steve Martin, I am optimistic about the progress of humanity, both in terms of individual men and women and in terms of the world in general. This is not to say that we can claim full credit for our progress, since our progress is ultimately only possible due to the unmerited, transformative grace of Christ, but I am not as certain that “the strung of increasing carnage will not be broken” in this century. Of course, I doubt we will be experiencing a century of peace, happiness and uninhibited joy, but I am fairly confident that this century will be at least somewhat better than the last. What I love about Christianity in general and Mormonism in particular is the optimistic hope it offers to a sinful world – not that we can be saved in our sin, but that we can be saved *from* our sin: that Christ can change us, gradually, from sinful creatures into sanctified, holy children of God. Now, that is surely progress. As I look in the mirror, as you encouraged me to do, I am actually convinced that I am a better person now than I was a year ago, that I am more Christlike, more loving, and more compassionate. I have progressed in righteousness, with the Divine help of Christ – only a bit, not dramatically, and I sure have a very, very long way still to go. So I disagree that “the human heart has not advances one bit.” Mine certainly has.
I am optimistic about the potential for human beings, both individually and as a species, to grow, learn from our mistakes, and progress, assisted and taught at every step by Christ through His unending, eternal, infinite grace.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree, I think dialogue is always helpful.